Carlos Correa’s stature with the Twins was evident from his first day at Target Field.
The club assigned him the left corner locker in the back of the clubhouse, the place of honor usually reserved for the undisputed leader of the team. Joe Mauer lockered there his final nine seasons before Nelson Cruz took it over.
That’s where reporters often found Correa before batting practice, laying on an acupressure mat with his feet up on a chair. Acupressure is a technique based on traditional Chinese medicine that supposedly releases blocked energy in the body, reducing back pain and stiffness. While prone, Correa often talked to teammates or scrolled through his smartphone. On the last homestand of the season, he even conducted an interview that way.
Correa said he hasn’t thought about whether to opt out of the final two years of his contract to re-enter the free agent market, which he must declare five days after the World Series ends.
“That’s something I want to think about in the off-season,” he said.
Plenty of people think he’s already decided. The New York Post reported in August that Correa was likely to opt out, and most baseball observers believe he’s one-and-done here, especially after the Twins’ monumental September collapse cost them any shot at postseason.
But in the past two weeks, Correa, 28, dropped hints he might stay if the Twins pony up a long-term deal. Scott Boras, Correa’s agent, is the master of the tortured metaphor, and Correa clearly learned from the best as he publicly lobbied the Twins to make him an offer.
First, he told the Pioneer Press, “I want a long-term relationship with someone … I don’t want to just be dating and going on one-night stands. I want to marry an organization.” Later, with other reporters, he likened himself to a luxury item at the high-end store. “I’m the product here,” he said. “If they want my product, they’ve just got to come get it.”
Whether the Twins bite or not – and whether Correa is truly open to staying – remains to be seen. Thing is, these aren’t the 2002 Twins, counting pennies and hot dog buns in the Metrodome; there’s plenty of incoming revenue from national television contracts and other sources to pay Correa. That Boras, baseball’s most powerful agent, dropped Correa in the Twins’ lap for $35.1 million per year after the club locked up Byron Buxton for $100 million over seven years shows how the perception of the Twins has changed in the industry. While not the Yankees or Dodgers with flowing fountains of cash, their pockets are no longer shallow.
Believe it: The Twins can afford to pay Correa, and Buxton, and go get a free agent starting pitcher to front the rotation, something they’ll badly need with the tougher schedule coming in 2023. No more 19 games against the hapless Royals and Tigers. The Twins will face AL Central rivals only 13 times while adding series against every National League team. That means the Nordstrom Rack approach to acquiring starting pitching, sifting through a pile of rejects to find a Brooks Brothers irregular, won’t work anymore.
Six years into the Derek Falvey/Thad Levine regime, the Twins have yet to draft and develop a single reliable starting pitcher; they’re still mostly trotting out mercenaries. Joe Ryan was acquired from Tampa Bay and Sonny Gray and Tyler Mahle from Cincinnati, while Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer arrived in free agency. (Kenta Maeda, out all season but expected back in 2023, came from the Dodgers.) Twins draftees Bailey Ober, Josh Winder and Louis Varland haven’t done enough to prove themselves.
That two-times-through-the-lineup-and-out business won’t cut it against the Dodgers, Mets, Braves and Cardinals. If you watched 10 minutes of the Mets-Padres Wild Card Series, you saw two teams with significantly more talent and energy than the Twins. That’s a problem. The Twins haven’t had an ace since Johan Santana; trotting out Jacob deGrom or Justin Verlander every fifth day (presuming they opt out of their 2023 contracts) with a healthy Buxton in centerfield gives the Twins a formidable look they haven’t had in 20 years.
But back to Correa. He says he likes it here. Besides taking his wife and infant son to the State Fair, he sampled several versions of Jucy Lucys, the cheese-stuffed burger he first encountered on a 2015 trip here with Houston. (No one told him to bite the corner of the patty first, so he ended up with a chin full of molten cheese — a rookie mistake he never repeated.) Now, he said, Matt’s Bar sends a batch to the clubhouse every couple of weeks.
“During baseball season, even when we were in Houston, we didn’t do much,” he said. “I don’t like to go out. I like to get my rest and just be home and be with my family. But we definitely enjoyed our time here, at the field, the way people treat us here. Whenever we go to the Mall of America, people there are super nice. We definitely loved our time here. It’s been a great experience.”
A strong September helped Correa finish at .291, his highest average since 2017, though with four fewer homers (22 this season) and 28 fewer (64) RBI than 2021. Correa’s season grades out better in analytic categories like wRC+ (runs per plate appearance), where he led qualifying shortstops and finished 22nd in the majors.
“I wish we had more ground ball pitchers so my defensive metrics could be better,” he said. “But we have a lot of fly ball pitchers so I don’t get as many chances to make fancy plays. But offensively, it’s been better than last year in terms of advanced stats.”
Correa has company on the elite shortstop free agent market with Trea Turner (Dodgers), Dansby Swanson (Braves) and possibly Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox). It’s not clear where Correa falls in that pantheon. But there would be no greater indictment of the Falvey/Levine regime than if the Twins make a competitive offer to Correa and he leaves anyway.
Conversely, the Twins could decide to let Correa walk, throw more money at starting pitching and leave shortstop to the promising Royce Lewis, provided Lewis recovers from his second major knee surgery in two years. Lewis isn’t expected back until June, however, so the Twins would need a short-term fill-in – perhaps Nick Gordon, perhaps a free agent.
“If Carlos doesn’t come back, I think Royce can jump in and play shortstop,” said Toby Gardenhire, manager of the St. Paul Saints, where Lewis started the season. “He’s got just as much range as I’ve seen out there at short. There are going to be some growing pains because he’s been out most of two seasons, but he’ll be able to handle it. He’s going to be the guy the Twins are going to want in the lineup every day because of the things he can bring to a ball club.”
Lewis spent the last week of the season in Dallas rehabbing the knee, and Twins manager Rocco Baldelli wouldn’t speculate about him replacing Correa in 2023.
“He has to get back to full strength,” Baldelli said. “When exactly that’s going to happen, we’re not sure. He’s in a pretty good place right now. Everything we’ve gotten in his rehab has been positive. But at this moment, there’s no way that question can be answered.”
Two other things need to happen this off-season. Baldelli keeps a chart on his desk, created by the training and peak performance staffs, indicating when certain players need days off as an attempt to head off injuries. It’s been a spectacular failure. Thirty-two Twins spent time on various injured lists, tied for the third-most in baseball per spotrac.com, and 19 were still on it when the season ended. This isn’t the first time injuries accumulated like cordwood since Falvey and Levine arrived, and it can’t keep happening.
“It starts with me,” Falvey said. “I have to assess what we’re doing organizationally and determine a way forward.”
To that end, Falvey Falvey announced the firing of head athletic trainer Michael Salazar on Monday.
More than anything, the Twins need to reestablish connections with fans turned off by the lockout, streaming service issues and the lack of outreach from the baseball operations side. A nearly 22% drop in attendance from 2019 shows the Twins have plenty of work to do. The final count of 1,801,128 paid fans was the lowest at Target Field in a non-COVID season since the park opened in 2010.
Too many cord cutters with Hulu and YouTube TV who can’t watch Twins games anymore found they didn’t miss them. And the club’s steadfast refusal to put even one game a week on free TV in a state where many areas still lack reliable cable and broadband service remains problematic. If the Mets, who co-own a regional sports network, can air 25 games a year on free TV in New York, why can’t the Twins?
Plans are under way for a full Twins Winter Caravan and TwinsFest, plus the first in-person Diamond Awards since the pandemic. All that helps. Caravan can’t be just rookies and alumni; Buxton, new AL batting champion Luis Arraez and Baldelli better be on that bus as well. But it all starts with Correa, and how the Twins proceed from there.