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It seemed the Astros and Carlos Correa had moved on from each other. Then the lockout happened

MLB’s lockout and an enigmatic free-agent market has the Astros in prime position to retain their longtime shortstop.

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MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Houston Astros Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to re-signing Carlos Correa, it seems the Astros’ unconventional approach might pay off. Except it’s not an unconventional approach as much as it had been indifferently waiting in the wings, and now capitalizing on an opportunity. Some may say it was a savvy employment of prudence, but it’s arguably best filed under “we’re very lucky to be in this position.”

Jim Crane and the Astros are the ‘we,’ and somehow, after everything that’s transpired over the last 12 months, they’re reportedly at the forefront in the Correa sweepstakes.

After the club and its star shortstop had failed to reach an agreement on an extension in March of last year, it was widely assumed that the 2021 campaign would be Correa’s last in Houston. Throughout the season, the playoffs, the first month of free agency — everything leading up to the first day of Major League Baseball’s lockout on Dec. 2, it was all but a certainty that he would be leaving town.

Even Correa’s teammates and manager knew his departure was inevitable.

On Oct. 3, shortly before players were to take the field for the regular-season finale, Correa’s teammates urged him to go out first, which wasn’t normal — he was usually one of the last ones out of the dugout. He abided and took his position at shortstop, only to soon find himself alone on the diamond.

Correa realized the situation and knelt down in the dirt, taking a moment as the Minute Maid Park crowd and his teammates showered him with applause. Everyone knew this was it. This was his final regular-season game at The Juicebox.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, soon after hitting his 26th home run of the year, Correa was taken out of the game by Dusty Baker, who wanted to give his shortstop a hero’s send-off.

It was as compelling and heartfelt a farewell as any Astros player had received in recent memory. Correa hugged his teammates and tipped his hat to the crowd as he exited the field. One of the most celebrated athletes across Houston sports, the headliner of one of the most important drafts in franchise history, had seemingly played his final regular-season game as a member of the organization that drafted him No. 1 overall nine years ago.

Roughly a month later, on the heels of another crushing World Series defeat, Crane and his staff essentially put the nail in the coffin, offering their ex-shortstop a 5-year, $160 million contract. As was the Astros’ 5-year, $125 million extension that was offered several months prior, their latest “attempt” was swiftly rejected.

Now a free agent who many considered to be the best in a loaded class, and was projected to receive as much as $300 million over 10 years — if not more — it became abundantly clear that Correa would be wearing a different uniform in 2022.

The Astros’ final offer at the time was merely a formality, a hollow effort made by Crane and Co. to show the fan base that they technically tried to bring back the 27-year-old Correa, who was fresh off a career year, finishing fifth in AL MVP voting and earning his first Gold Glove.

Though the CBA was due to expire in early December — with the expectation that labor negotiations would be tedious and contentious — free agency proceeded.

It wasn’t long before rumors began circulating that Correa was seeking a deal similar to Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, who signed a 10-year, $341 million contract before the 2021 season. While an ambitious asking price, there were many teams — specifically contending teams — that were in the market for a star shortstop, and there were plenty to choose from.

Evidently, for Correa’s sake, perhaps too many.

Before the owners implemented the lockout on Dec. 2, there was a mad-dash of sorts in late November for players to ink their deals before the impending work stoppage. Shortstops Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Javier Báez, three of the best available, beat the buzzer. Combined, their contracts totaled $640 million, with Seager securing $325 million (10 years) from the Rangers, who also committed $175 million to Semien (7 years).

This left Correa and other marquee free agents in a peculiar spot. Correa was presumably hoping to cash in big on his tremendous 2021, a year that finally saw his health problems remain dormant, enabling him to produce the second best bWAR (7.2) among all non-Ohtani position players.

But as the winter progressed, it became increasingly apparent that if a new CBA agreement were to happen, it wouldn’t until games were in jeopardy of being lost, with the possibility that negotiations could extend into April and beyond.

This specter only served to complicate Correa’s paused free agency, which was now under the guidance of agent Scott Boras, who is renowned for his ability to maximize his clients’ earnings. Correa hired Boras not long after reports surfaced that prior to the lockout, he (or his camp) declined a 10-year, $270 million offer from the Tigers, who then ostensibly moved on to Báez, netting the ex-Cubs All-Star for 6 years, $140 million.

In hindsight, the implications of this particular development could be viewed as being nearly as damaging to Correa’s free agency as the lockout itself. Aside from the Rangers, it seemed that teams in need of a shortstop were not willing to spend upward of $300 million.

Based on how many quality options there were to choose from, it’s possible that the supply ultimately outweighed the demand. That, or the imminent lockout simply deterred certain teams from spending big until the details of the new CBA were hashed out.

At this juncture, it appears that the former is the more likely explanation.

For example, the Yankees, once thought to be a major suitor for Correa, are now out of the picture, having opted for the financially cheaper route by trading for infielder/catcher Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and will use him as a short-term bridge to one of their top shortstop prospects.

Though a new CBA is in place — with a $20 million increase in the CBT threshold — Opening Day is slated for April 7, which has given free agents and teams less than a month to match up. It’s been six days since free agency resumed and there’s predictably been a frenzy of activity, with Dodgers general manager Andrew Friedman describing it as more intense than the trade deadline.

Despite this, Correa remains unsigned.

He’s not the only premium player left on the board, with shortstop Trevor Story, first baseman Freddie Freeman and others still searching for a new team.

Time is running out for Correa to sign before the season, as Opening Day is just 22 days away. A different strategy seems to have been enacted in talks — namely a reduced asking price.

It’s led to the improbable: a potential reunion with the Astros.

MLB Insider Héctor Gómez has reported that the 2021 AL champions have renewed their pursuit of Correa, with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reporting that the club will make the two-time All-Star a new offer, and that Astros camp has been buzzing about the possibility of a deal getting done.

With Crane recently saying that he believed he made Correa a “good offer before,” it’s likely that the new offer will reflect the previous one in terms of length (five or six years). What could change, however, is the total dollar figure.

The Astros have around $33 million in ‘cap space,’ according to FanGraphs’ Roster Resource, but there’s a possibility that Crane could enter the tax this year if it meant retaining Correa on a contract that did not exceed six years, the maximum length Crane will offer in negotiations, according to reports.

Of course, because the length would be drastically lower than what Correa has been seeking, the AAV (average annual value) would need to be greater.

It was $32 million in the non-competitive November offer — now, it might need to be closer to $40 million. A contract in the range of 6 years, $225 million — an AAV of $37.5 million — could result in an agreement, but perhaps not without a caveat: an opt-out.

It’s been speculated that if Correa were to sign such a multi-year deal with the Astros, he would require an opt-out, potentially as early as next year. He could then re-enter free agency at age 28 and, without the derailment of a lockout, could have a better chance of landing the type of contract he’s been wanting. On the flip side, if injuries impacted his 2022 season, he’d already be due to make upward of $35 million annually for the next five years, giving him a quality security blanket.

There is another route that the Astros and Correa could go down, and it’s been gaining some traction: a one-year deal.

In one of Rosenthal’s recent columns, he opened his piece by envisioning a scenario where Correa accepts a 1-year, $45 million contract. This would undoubtedly put the Astros beyond the luxury-tax threshold, but for context, Crane has entered that territory once before in 2020, so it’s feasible that the benefit of bringing Correa back without the supposed risk of a long-term contract would outweigh the CBT penalties, and would thus make the move too appealing to forgo.

In a perfect world, Correa would have already signed an enormous contract, but it seems he may have to settle for one that lacks length. At least it’ll be nonetheless lucrative.