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Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman and the Big Free Agency Questions

With the completion of the World Series, baseball moved immediately into free agency — sort of. The league’s collective bargaining agreement is set to expire on Dec. 1, and as a result, very little movement is expected as teams and players alike wait to find out how everything is going to shake out. The possibility exists that the league could enact a lockout on Dec. 2, which would halt all activities until a deal is reached.

As we wait for those proceedings to finalize, and hope the sport does not find itself in a work stoppage, there are some big questions to ponder while the hot stove preheats.

The cost of a top-flight shortstop is high — very high. After Fernando Tatis Jr. signed a market-altering $340 million contract with the San Diego Padres ahead of the 2021 season, Francisco Lindor went a million better by getting $341 million from the Mets. Correa is younger (and, arguably, better) than Lindor and is light years beyond Tatis in defense and durability. So, $350 million? $400 million?

Now factor in the stain of 2017. Correa was a central figure in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal and has embraced his role as an unapologetic spokesman for that tainted core to the point where he can sometimes feel like a wrestling heel.

The reality is that the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft just turned 27, is coming off his best all-around season, has excelled in the postseason and is viewed by his teammates as the ultimate leader.

“Hopefully Carlos re-signs here to stay together,” Yuli Gurriel said ahead of the American League Championship Series. “But it’s always hard, and this is a business, and we have to understand that. The last few years, he’s assumed that role of leadership and he’s done it well.”

Houston, which has never given a player a contract larger than $151 million and let George Springer, another homegrown superstar, walk away last off-season, is unlikely to approach Lindor/Tatis territory to retain Correa — though the team did extend him a qualifying offer, which means any other team that signs him will have to provide draft pick compensation. And his polarizing nature outside of Houston and the fact that the list of available free agents includes other star shortstops like Corey Seager of the Dodgers and Trevor Story of the Rockies could tamp down his demands to a certain extent. But anything less than $300 million in total value on a contract of 10-12 years would be an absolute bargain for the team that signs Correa — which is quite a circumstance.

Both sides have been saying all the right things. Freeman wants to stay in Atlanta — the soft-service ice cream machine helps — and the Braves want him to stay. But the financial realities of the game exist even after a World Series win and, let’s not forget, even Henry Aaron finished his career with the Milwaukee Brewers.

“I think everyone in this room knows I want to stay here,” Freeman said in a news conference during the World Series.

Freeman, 32, might be even more accomplished than you realize. Since 2013, his on-base plus slugging percentage, when adjusted for league and home ballpark, has been at least 30 percent above average in each season. He has already accomplished that feat in a qualifying season as many times as Hall of Famers like Hank Greenberg, Carl Yastrzemski and Willie McCovey did in their entire careers. He has 271 home runs, won the 2020 N.L. Most Valuable Player Award, is a five-time All-Star, a Gold Glove-winner and was the best active player for a World Series-winning team.

He also just finished an eight-year $135 million contract — the largest contract in franchise history — and probably wants a raise from the $22 million he made in 2021. For now the team has extended a qualifying offer to him, which is largely a formality.

Atlanta bought itself some financial flexibility by signing young stars like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies to long-term deals that are well below their market value but postseason heroes Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler are eligible for free agency and Game 6-winner Max Fried is eligible for salary arbitration. Some compromises will have to be made and Freeman could probably make more money elsewhere if that is what he chooses to prioritize.

Toronto has to be wondering what might have been if only the Blue Jays had made the playoffs. The team was forced to play its home games for the first half of the season in Florida and Buffalo, which probably contributed to an uneven start. The hole proved too deep to climb out of to make the playoffs even though the team’s run differential of plus-183 was better than all but four teams in the majors.

The core of the team is a truly electrifying group of young stars like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez, and Toronto hasn’t shied away from spending big in free agency, tossing $150 million at George Springer and $80 million at Hyun-jin Ryu to complement that young core.

But with all that, the team’s best pitcher in 2021 was Robbie Ray, a Cy Young Award hopeful who was acquired essentially for nothing (the player Toronto sent to Arizona for him in 2020 was brought back to the Blue Jays for cash six months later). And the team’s most valuable position player, in terms of wins above replacement, wasn’t Guerrero, who flirted with winning the triple-crown, but was instead Marcus Semien, a second baseman who was signed to a shocking-in-retrospect one-year, $18 million deal after Oakland chose not to retain him.

Ray and Semien, who were both given qualifying offers for 2022, cost a combined $26 million in 2021 and produced 13.9 WAR. It would be reasonable for them each to want nearly that much per season going forward, and with the Blue Jays knowing they will have to pay players like Guerrero and Bichette market value in the coming years, adding on large commitments for a 30-year-old pitcher and a 31-year-old infielder might be pushing the team past a payroll threshold that it can manage.

How many years can a team reasonably commit to a 37-year-old Max Scherzer being a top-of-the-rotation ace? Does that math change when you consider the other frontline starters available, besides Scherzer and Ray, are a fairly underwhelming group headlined by Kevin Gausman, the oft-injured Noah Syndergaard and the recovering-from-surgery Justin Verlander? (Marcus Stroman of the Mets and Carlos Rodon of the White Sox might really cash in when considering the fragility and age of the other options.)

How much is a 33-year-old Starling Marte worth after hitting .310 and leading the majors in stolen bases? Will Nelson Cruz, 41, ever show an appreciable decline? What will become of the Cubs’ championship core that scattered to the wind at the trading deadline? Will Trevor Bauer ever pitch again (for the Dodgers or otherwise)? And will the Mets, who have been linked to roughly every baseball operations person in baseball, only to have that interest quickly rejected, get a new general manager in place before players start signing with other teams?

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