MLB free-agency grades: A+! Carlos Correa signing a stunning slam dunk for Twins

Talk about March madness.

Front offices dream of executing the perfect offseason plan, but those aspirations rarely come to fruition because of the complexities of free agency and trades and the need to adjust on the fly. With the signing of shortstop Carlos Correa, this year’s top free agent, to a three-year, $105.3 million contract, the Minnesota Twins added an exclamation point to a brilliant series of moves — and team president Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine did it in one whirlwind week of activity.

First, the Twins utilized their catching depth and traded Mitch Garver to the Rangers for shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Then they acquired the underrated Sonny Gray from the Reds for Chase Petty — the team’s first-round draft pick in 2021, but a high school pitcher who is years away from the majors. Then, less than 24 hours after acquiring Kiner-Falefa, they shipped their new shortstop, third baseman Josh Donaldson and catcher Ben Rortvedt to the Yankees for third baseman Gio Urshela and catcher/DH Gary Sanchez.

With Donaldson owed $49.5 million, trading him also freed up money to pursue free-agent shortstop Trevor Story. Instead, with Story hesitating on his decision, the Twins swooped in for Correa, a deal that ESPN’s Jeff Passan said “came together quickly” on Friday. Passan called it a stunner, and that’s the correct description. This is not how the Twins usually operate. This is the biggest contract the Twins have ever given a free agent, topping the $92 million guaranteed to Donaldson and the $55 million to Ervin Santana in 2015.

Correa is also the best free agent the Twins have ever signed, certainly the best from a different team, with apologies to Jack Morris. Correa is coming off a 7.2-WAR season in which he finished fifth in the MVP voting after hitting .279/.366/.485 with 26 home runs and winning a Gold Glove. He’s entering his age-27 season and is in his prime, and while he’s had some injury issues in the past, he’s been healthy the past two seasons.

Yes, Correa has opt-out clauses after both 2022 and 2023, so there is a good chance he leaves the Twins after one season. That wouldn’t be ideal for the Twins, of course, but it also means there is no long-term risk here (other than Correa getting injured and having to pay him in 2023 and 2024). Correa gets the highest annual average value contract ever for a position player, although he didn’t get the $300 million deal he was seeking at the outset of free agency. If he puts up another big season, however, he can reenter the market and, given his age, still be line for a super-megadeal.

Really, the stunning thing here is that another team couldn’t beat this deal. The Astros had been in talks with Correa; hard to believe they wouldn’t have done this with a slightly higher AAV to keep him in Houston. The Mariners have lots of money to spend, and while they have J.P. Crawford at shortstop, they need another hitter; Correa would have been a great fit there. And the penny-pinching Yankees, who seemed to be the obvious fit for Correa back in November: They’ll be paying Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa about $26.5 million in 2022. Would you rather have those two at that price or Correa at $35.1 million?

In the end, the Twins’ offseason maneuvers leave them with Correa, Gray, Urshela, Sanchez and Dylan Bundy (signed before the lockout), players worth 11.6 WAR in 2021, with more upside if Bundy bounces back from a poor season with the Angels. The departing players — Donaldson, Garver and free-agent shortstop Andrelton Simmons — were worth 6.8 WAR. It gives the Twins this intriguing lineup:

RF Max Kepler
CF Byron Buxton
SS Carlos Correa
2B Jorge Polanco
1B Miguel Sano
DH Gary Sanchez
LF Trevor Larnach/Alex Kirilloff
3B Gio Urshela
C Ryan Jeffers

The bench includes Luis Arraez and rookie infielder Jose Miranda, one of the top hitters in Triple-A last season, plus Sanchez serving as the backup catcher. It’s a lineup packed with power potential, and the defense is outstanding up the middle with Correa, Buxton and Jeffers — assuming Buxton can stay healthy … a big if.

After winning the American League Central in 2019 and 2020 before cratering to 73-89 in 2021, does this make the Twins contenders? The White Sox remain heavy favorites in the AL Central (about six wins better via my colleague Bradford Doolittle’s projections), but the Twins are now in shouting distance and the extra playoff team will help the Twins’ playoff odds as well. What they need is more rotation help. You can argue that this week of transactions feels strange in the wake of the Jose Berrios trade to the Blue Jays last summer, given that he was still under team control for another season, but a successful front office is able to adjust to the market and that’s what the Twins have done.

The rotation lines up as Kenta Maeda, Gray, Bundy, Bailey Ober and Joe Ryan. I’m a big believer in Ryan, who looked terrific in his five-start major league cameo last September (30 strikeouts, 5 walks, 16 hits in 26.2 innings). Ober had a 4.19 ERA as a rookie with an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio (96 to 19). If he can curb the home runs, he’s a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter. The Twins also have a couple of near major league-ready starter prospects in Josh Winder (2.63 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A) and Jordan Balazovic (3.62 ERA at Double-A).

Still, given that Correa might only be here for one season means the Twins are in a certain win-now mode for 2022. There isn’t much pitching left in free agency, so they’ve been rumored to be interested in A’s starters Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea. The Twins have one of the better farm systems around, including more potential starting pitchers in the likes of Simeon Woods Richardson, Matt Canterino and Jhoan Duran, who all would be of interest to the A’s. Austin Martin (acquired in the Berrios deal) and Royce Lewis are two top-100 prospects the Twins would probably prefer. Miranda, who hit .344/.401/.572 with 30 home runs, would be a fit at third base for the A’s to replace Matt Chapman.

So the Twins have options to improve further. I have a feeling this blueprint isn’t quite finished.

Grade: A+

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