Bowden: Carlos Correa deal-gone-wrong highlights MLB front offices’ free-agency high-wire act

Carlos Correa was the Giants’ next face of the franchise, until he wasn’t, after a disagreement arose over his medical results. He is now — somehow — a member of the Mets, who are now arguably, on paper, the best team in the National League, after they agreed to a 12-year, $315 million contract with the star shortstop… pending a physical.

Those last few words are at the heart of the most stunning development of this MLB offseason. As details emerge about why the Giants’ record-breaking deal with Correa — what had been the largest contract ever awarded to a shortstop — fell apart, I thought it would be instructive to discuss in general how teams rely on medical reports in the course of signing a free agent.

First, it is important to make clear the basic progression of most signings. When a team reaches an agreement with a free agent and his representative, the parties first agree on the contract length and amount — the years and dollars. Then, they agree on any opt-out clauses, option years, incentives and award bonuses.

Next, they agree on the guarantee language, which is a detailed legal document that includes all kinds of specific terms and conditions. Both sides have input into what’s included, and in a major deal for a free agent such as Correa, the document could be 50 to 100 pages. Each deal is different, but every team and agent has language they like to include. For example, a team might say a player isn’t allowed to go surfing or ride a motorcycle, etc.

With the above agreement framework in place, the team will always make sure the deal is pending a physical and/or a review of the medical records. Teams obviously don’t want to agree to a contract and later find out there were serious medical concerns about the player that should have been considered. There’s risk with any deal, but teams need to make informed decisions with as much information as possible or they might get stuck with millions of dollars of dead money on their books, which can hinder an organization for years.

If a team uncovers a medical issue during this process, it can decide to (1) go ahead with the original deal, (2) move on from the player completely, or (3) raise the issue with the player’s camp and try to negotiate better terms for a new deal. However, in the latter case, the team has nixed the initial deal, and the player is free to resume talks with other teams, which is what Correa did with the Mets in this instance.

Mets owner Steve Cohen has spent more than $800 million on free agents this offseason. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The stakes are high with any long-term deal, which brings us back to the curious case of Correa and the Giants, who had agreed to a 13-year, $350 million deal, pending a physical.

What’s unusual here is that the Giants called a news conference for Tuesday, which would lead one to believe Correa had passed his physical and they were ready to introduce him as the most important foundational piece of their franchise since they signed Barry Bonds in 1992. It’s bizarre that they then canceled the news conference, because under no circumstances should a team schedule one in the first place until its medical people have signed off on a contract. This was a huge mistake by the Giants front office. It’s embarrassing.

However, regardless of this mistake, if the Giants had medical concerns about Correa, it was much better to back out of the deal now and not make a $350 million commitment. No team wants a player who could end up living on the injured list. Handing out a 13-year contract that would have taken Correa into his 40s was risky enough, but if significant medical issues also exist (and it’s not clear that they do), it only compounds the long-term risk.

During my 16 years as a GM, I had to make several difficult medical decisions on free agents. The one that stands out the most, nearly 30 years later, was Ron Gant, whom I signed to a two-year contract with the Reds in June 1994, after the Braves had released him a few months earlier following a motorcycle accident. The team doctors said Gant wouldn’t be able to play in 1994 and might not play in the majors again, but after weighing the pros and cons, I signed Gant to a contract that paid him $3.5 million in 1995.

Gant did not play in 1994. He arrived for spring training in 1995 with a limp and missed his first 12 pitches in batting practice. I think I got sick to my stomach at that point. However, my bet on Gant paid off as he ended up with 29 home runs, 88 RBIs and 23 stolen bases that season. He made the All-Star team and finished 11th in the NL MVP voting.

I’m not comparing the Gant signing with a nine-figure deal for Correa, but I mention it to highlight the medical factors baseball executives must weigh with every player and every contract. During my GM career, most of the time I followed the advice of the medical teams (and I worked with some of the best in the business, including Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Timothy Kremchek). In this instance, I didn’t. But make no mistake, if Gant had not been healthy enough to perform in 1995, I could have lost my job over that decision.

With Correa, only time will tell if the Giants, or the Mets, made the right call. Mets owner Steve Cohen was quick to pounce early Wednesday in making Correa his latest big-money acquisition. Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, in a short statement Wednesday, cited “a difference of opinion over the results of (Correa’s) physical examination.” Scott Boras, Correa’s agent, explained his side of events.

The Giants will have made the right decision if health curtails Correa’s career. But they’ll regret it for decades if he stars for years in New York and ends up in the Hall of Fame. In the here and now, the Giants offseason is a disaster. They’ve made some moves to help their team, but this offseason has been defined by the two superstars they lost: First, they made a strong push for Aaron Judge, but lost out when he re-signed with the Yankees. Then, this. They are miles behind the Padres and Dodgers.

Meanwhile, the Mets, assuming they finalize the Correa deal, could enter the season as the top team in the NL, with the highest payroll and payroll tax the sport has ever seen. The NL East will be a three-team slugfest of epic proportions, with the Braves, Mets and Phillies all World Series contenders. With the margins so thin between them, the results of a physical in December could end up swinging the division race, or even the world championship.

(Top photo: Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


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