The baseball stars have never aligned in this fashion before, and they likely never will again.
Five shortstops, all first-round picks, every one of them an All-Star, three of them World Series champions, nestled between the prime ages of 26 and 28, each with just 162 games separating them from seemingly bottomless riches.
From youngest to oldest, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Javy Baez and Trevor Story represent an unprecedented class of pending free agent shortstops, a quintet that will combine for an otherworldly sum of salary commitments between now and the start of the 2022 season.
Say, $1 billion.
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As the 2021 season’s Opening Day – a traditional endpoint for negotiations for pending free agents – draws near, USA TODAY Sports examines what sets each shortstop apart – and what the crucial next few months may look like:
Carlos Correa: A big bet on himself
Drafted: First overall, 2012
Honor roll: 2015 AL Rookie of the Year, 2017 All-Star, 2017 World Series champion
The stats that matter: .353 career on-base percentage, 126 career adjusted OPS.
Outlook: As the only “1/1” of the group, Correa, 26, has shouldered significant expectations since he topped the 2012 draft, and met them all, reaching the big leagues at 20 and winning a World Series title at 23. That 2017 World Series and his finest offensive season ever – his .315 batting average, 24 homers and .941 OPS – came in the heart of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, which will forever follow him. Injuries, too, have dogged Correa, who has played more than 110 games just once.
Yet the negatives are more than overcome by a skill set that rarely fails him when he is on the field, and an ability to rise to the moment in October. The Astros made the postseason in all but one of his seven seasons and won nine of 13 playoff series as he compiled an .869 OPS and smacked 17 home runs, tied for ninth all-time. His ability to shake off a so-so 60-game regular season and slam six home runs as the Astros fell a win shy of a surprise World Series appearance last October was a reminder of his capabilities.
What happens now: Correa reportedly turned down a six-year, $120 million offer from the Astros and termed it “really low,” saying Thursday’s Opening Day deadline for an extension is firm. “Once the season starts and I start playing, I’m playing my last season before I become a free agent,” he said March 25. “For me, it doesn’t make any sense to be dealing while I’m trying to focus and trying to perform and trying to help my team win ballgames. So, yeah, absolutely not.”
The Astros signed infield cornerstones Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve to extensions but let center fielder George Springer walk in free agency. With Bregman’s ability to shift to shortstop in 2021, it’s possible the Astros may let Correa move on, too, especially if his 2021 performance puts his future price tag into the stratosphere.
Corey Seager: House money
Drafted: 18th overall, 2012
Honor roll: 2016 NL Rookie of the Year, two-time All-Star, two Silver Sluggers, two top 10 MVP finishes, 2020 NLCS MVP, 2020 World Series MVP, 2020 World Series champion.
The stats that matter: .362 career OBP, .863 career OPS, 26 homers per 162 games.
Outlook: After All-Star appearances in his first two full seasons, Seager endured a 1-2 punch in 2018 – Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow and arthroscopic hip surgery. While he led the NL with 44 doubles in 2019, he returned in full fury in 2020, hitting 15 homers in 51 games, posting career highs in OPS (.943) and adjusted OPS (152).
It felt like Seager, 26, destroyed baseballs with regularity and the stats bear it out – he ranked second in the major leagues in “barrels” per plate appearance (12.1%) and then hit seven homers in helping vanquish Atlanta in the NLCS, Tampa Bay in the World Series and steal all the postseason hardware.
What happens now: The Dodgers, as always, have the capability to do whatever they want – witness the acquisition and $365 million extension of Mookie Betts a year ago. Yet the franchise also has a gaggle of superstars headed toward free agency – Seager and Clayton Kershaw this year, Cody Bellinger in 2023, Walker Buehler in 2024, with Trevor Bauer holding opt-outs each of the next two years.
Seager’s trendline is edging closer to $300 million; even with the Dodgers’ bottomless revenues, a stealth strike before Opening Day that both sides could stomach seems unlikely. Paying full cost after this season will force the Dodgers to ponder how many nine-figure contracts they’re willing to carry throughout this decade.
Francisco Lindor: Almost home?
Drafted: Eighth overall, 2011
Honor roll: Four-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner, Platinum Glove winner, three top 10 MVP finishes
The stats that matter: 138 home runs (most among shortstops since 2015), 11.1 UZR/150 rating (second to Andrelton Simmons since 2015), .833 career OPS.
Outlook: The only member of this group to get traded, Lindor, 27, only has to put up an MVP-caliber year for a Mets team loaded with great expectations in the first year under a deep-pocketed owner. All while adjusting to New York and a new club.
Then again, there isn’t much this guy can’t slug, field and charm his way through.
Lindor is by far the most durable shortstop of this or any group, never playing less than 143 games and leading the AL in plate appearances three times. He shoulders on- and off-field responsibilities with elan, as good an ambassador as he is a slugging, Gold Glove-caliber shortstop.
Outlook: Stay tuned. While Lindor seemed adamant to test free agency after rejecting myriad low-ball overtures from the Cleveland Indians, new owner Steve Cohen is a motivated party after the club traded for him, then struck out on multiple high-profile free agents. Guaranteeing Lindor more than $300 million before he hits the market wouldn’t merely be a splash, but a relatively low-risk proposition for a franchise that needs an everyday cornerstone.
Two years ago, the Mets and ace Jacob deGrom agreed to a five-year, $137.5 million extension just two days before Opening Day, despite pessimism a deal would get done. Sunday, Cohen confirmed he enjoyed a dinner meeting with Lindor, who already will be the game’s highest-paid shortstop in 2021, at $22.3 million per year. In that sense, any extension would temporarily set the bar for his comrades in this free agent class.
None of this is lost on Lindor. So if Cohen wants to pick up this check, the tab – before tip – best exceed the $300 million Manny Machado received from the San Diego Padres in 2019.
Javier Baez: Last Cub standing?
Drafted: Ninth overall, 2011.
Honor roll: Two-time All-Star, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, 2016 NLCS MVP, 2016 World Series champion, 2018 NL MVP runner-up.
The stats that matter: 26 homers per 162 games, 43 Defensive Runs Saved as a shortstop.
Outlook: Baez faces one minor hurdle the others don’t: A below-par 2020 season in which he slashed .203/.238/.360 and admitted the fan-less, grim pandemic campaign brought down his energy level.
Baez’s offensive output isn’t as consistent or potent as his peers, either – he grades out at just above a league average hitter (102 adjusted OPS) and his .304 career OBP, with a career best of .326, does not equate to superstar production.
Still, that belies the fact few, if any, can pull off what Baez does on a baseball field, be it his occasionally prodigious power (34 home runs in 2018), his unparalleled tagging ability around the second base bag and an overall charisma only his old pal Lindor can match.
What happens now: Much of that is up to owner Tom Ricketts, who famously claimed “biblical” losses during the 2020 season, but also has a new TV network to push, and it’d be helpful to have some recognizable faces on the screen. Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant all face free agency after this season, with Willson Contreras to follow after 2022. Rizzo on Monday said contract negotiations with the club had stalled and he was prepared to play out the season.
Baez is the youngest of that group and also retains some upside. Both parties might benefit from an agreement before the season – Baez wouldn’t have to shop his numbers on the market against his cohorts, and Ricketts wouldn’t have to worry about trotting out the Iowa Cubs in 2022.
Trevor Story: Closing time at Coors
Drafted: 45th overall, 2011
Honor roll: Two-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, one top-10 MVP finish
The stats that matter: .874 career OPS, 37- and 35-homer seasons, 60 Defensive Runs Saved.
Outlook: Story’s future took a turn for the weird when his running mate and franchise cornerstone Nolan Arenado was traded by the Colorado Rockies to St. Louis. Suddenly, Story himself getting shipped out seemed far more likely than him re-upping with a franchise adrift.
Those wondering if Story’s game will play outside of Denver might not realize prodigious home run totals are only a portion of his appeal.
Story is a fantastic defender, hits the stuffing out of the ball – his 89.9 mph exit velocity last year mirrors Lindor’s – and is a freakish athlete. He has added stolen bases to his game, stealing 27 and 23 in 2018 and ’19 and leading the NL with 15 in 59 games last year. Meanwhile, his strikeout percentage has diminished every year since whiffing 34.4% of the time in his first full season; it was 24.3% last season.
Story turns 29 in November and is the oldest of the pending free agent shortstops, which ostensibly could diminish his value. Yet almost every key metric is trending positively.
What happens now: Story has adopted a diplomatic stance, though the chances the Rockies determine building around Story, tendering him an aggressive offer and him accepting – particularly after the Arenado debacle – seem remote at best.
Story will have plenty of positives to take to free agency next winter. And there’s also a decent chance some of his competition takes themselves off the market by then.