Bowden: The Carlos Correa deal misjudged the spotlight on front-office free agency work

Carlos Correa was the Giants’ next face in the franchise, until he wasn’t, after a row arose over his medical results. He’s now – in a way – 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 amazing development of this MLB season. As details emerge about why the Giants’ record-breaking deal with Correa — the largest contract ever awarded to a shortstop — collapsed, I thought it would be useful to discuss more generally how teams rely on medical reports in the context of signing a free agent.

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

Then, they agree to the Warranty Language, which is a detailed legal document that includes all kinds of specific terms and conditions. Both sides have an input on what is included, and in a big deal for a free agent like Korea, the document can be 50 to 100 pages long. Every deal is different, but every team and agent has language they’d like to include. For example, the team might say that the player is not allowed to go surfing, ride a motorcycle, etc.

With the above agreement framework in place, the team will always ensure that the deal is pending a physical and/or medical records review. Teams clearly didn’t want to agree to a contract and later found out there were serious medical concerns about the player that should have been taken into account. There is risk in any deal, but teams need to make informed decisions with as much information as possible or they could be stuck with millions of dollars of dead money on their books, which could cripple an organization for years.

If a team discovers a medical issue during this process, it can decide to (1) move forward with the original deal, (2) move on from the player entirely, or (3) raise the issue with the player’s camp and attempt to negotiate better terms for a new deal. However, in the latter case, the team cancels the initial deal, and the player is free to resume talks with other teams, which Correa did with the Mets in this case.

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

The stakes are high with any long-term deal, which brings us back to the strange case of Korea and the giants, who agreed to a 13-year, $350 million deal, pending material action.

What’s unusual here is that the Giants called a press conference on Tuesday, which would lead one to believe that Correa had passed a physical and were willing to pitch him as the most important mainstay of their franchise since they signed Barry Bonds in 1992. It’s odd. They then canceled the press conference, because under no circumstances should a team have scheduled a date in the first place until their medical doctors had signed a contract. This was a major misstep by the Giants front office. It’s embarrassing.

However, regardless of this mistake, if the Giants had medical concerns about Korea, it would have been far better to back out of the deal now and not commit the $350 million. No team wants a player who could end up on the injured list. Handing over a 13-year contract that would have taken Correa into his 40s was risky enough, but if there are major medical issues as well (and they obviously don’t exist), it only compounds the long-term risks.

In my 16 years as general manager, I’ve had to make many difficult medical decisions about free agents. The most memorable person, nearly 30 years later, was Ron Gant, whom I signed to a two-year contract with the Reds in June 1994, after being released by the Braves a few months earlier after a motorcycle accident. Team doctors said Gant would be unable to play in 1994 and might never play in the major leagues again, but after weighing the pros and cons, she signed Gant to a contract that paid him $3.5 million in 1995.

Gant did not play in 1994. He arrived at spring training in 1995 limping and missed the 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 NL MVP voting.

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

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

The Giants will have made the right decision if Correa’s career is curtailed by health. But they will regret it for decades if he was a star for years in New York and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Here and now, offseason giants disaster. They made some moves to help their team, but this offseason was decided by the two superstars they lost: First, they made a solid push for Aaron Judge, only to lose 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 best team in the NL, with the highest payroll and payroll tax the sport has ever seen. East will be the NL A slow paced three team game of epic proportions, with the Braves, Mets and Phillies all World Series contenders. With the margins narrow between them, December’s physical results could end up swinging to a divisional race, or even a World Series.

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

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