FORT MYERS, Fla. – At 9:20 p.m. ET, Minnesota Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey texted Rocco Baldelli, the team’s manager, to ask what he was doing.
Baldelli said he was getting ready for bed. He’s a new dad to a 6-month-old and spring training mornings start early.
“I wouldn't keep you from bed unless it was a Carlos Correa Zoom,” Falvey replied.
“OK,” Baldelli wrote back, “I’ll be there.”
Sure, there was some drama in there. But when Carlos Correa ceased to be a Houston Astro after they lost Game 6 in the World Series, it was the end of an incredibly successful decade that started with the first overall draft pick in 2012 and spanned one Rookie of the Year campaign, six Octobers, three Fall Classics and one championship.
“How’s it going to be if we ever leave?” his wife, Daniella Rodriguez, asked early in the offseason.
The Astros were the only baseball home they’d ever known. Correa proposed in the midst of his celebratory postgame interview after winning it all in 2017.
“What do we do on a daily basis when we're in the middle of the season?” her husband said. “We watch movies, we go eat at restaurants and now we take care of the baby. Every city in the United States has that. So wherever we go, we’re going to be fine.”
But not every city has a ballpark where Correa is a career .413 hitter with a 1.205 OPS over 15 games, a manager Correa feels like he can really talk to, a team he believes has championship potential in spite of their recent history and ownership willing to spring for the biggest free agent on the market so soon after such a disastrous year.
Four months later, on the other side of a 99-day lockout, Correa watched Rodriguez ready their new baby, Kylo, for bed. “There might be a big chance that we’re going to Minnesota,” he said.
“Just like that?” she asked, “Really, that quick?”
Atop a stacked shortstop market, Correa was expected to sign a blockbuster contract that would cement his superstar status. In the pre-lockout frenzy, the rebuilding Texas Rangers had committed 17 years and half a billion dollars to Marcus Semien and Corey Seager combined. And the Detroit Tigers had bolstered their young team with proven winner Javy Baez for six years and $140 million.
Now it was just Correa and Trevor Story left looking for a team while a condensed spring training gobbled up the mere weeks until opening day. Maybe Yankees fans would forgive the sign-stealing if he became New York’s most famous shortstop since Derek Jeter. Or maybe he would reunite with the Astros team that all but raised him.
During the lockout, Correa had switched agencies. Newly represented by Scott Boras, he found teams were cautious about making long-term commitments under the tight time frame forced by the long lockout. If it was going to be a shorter deal, Correa wanted to go somewhere he knew he could excel and add to his 79 career postseason games.
On the Zoom, the Twins made Correa feel like Minnesota was a place that he could call home.
“Especially talking to Rocco and you know, hearing so many great things about him from all the players that played for him,” Correa said. “He's the guy I'm gonna be working the closest with so when I feel like I have a manager that I can trust that I can communicate with, for me that's just a game changer.”
And Correa made the Twins feel like their great players could be better, could be winners in October. He came prepared with constructive critiques, a passion for precision and an unparalleled attention to detail.
“He wants to be a part of helping elevate everyone around him,” Baldelli said. “Someone in my shoes, you're dying to hear that from a guy that you're bringing into your organization.”
When he got off the two-and-a-half-hour Zoom, Correa told Rodriguez to start packing.
Really, that quick.
Over the course of a single day, the Twins had pulled off the most shocking signing of the offseason when they landed Correa with a three-year, $105.3 million contract that includes opt-outs after each of the first two years. On Wednesday, he donned a Twins jersey for the cameras and officially joined a team that finished last in the AL Central in 2021.
Ahead of last season, projections put the Twins at 91-71, almost assured of a third straight postseason appearance following first-place finishes in 2019 and the shortened 2020. But everything quickly went off the rails and by the trade deadline, they were dealing their DH, Nelson Cruz, and top of the rotation, José Berríos. Ultimately, they went 73-89.
“It kind of devours you,” Baldelli said of a difficult season in what was an even more difficult year for the country at large, with the pandemic, and Minneapolis in particular with the racial reckoning.
“We certainly did not have the success we were hoping to have last year, but you really have two choices there,” Falvey said. “You can go and look at it and try to dig deep and figure out where you can improve and what are the opportunities for improvement. Or you can take a different path. And we chose right from the get go: how do we figure it out?”
Often, when faced with disappointing results, teams — especially those in small markets — choose the “different path” of the tank or the teardown. Long before opening day, they stop trying, even when a new collective bargaining agreement has stopped them from offloading their best players in a preseason abdication.
But with the financial backing of ownership, the Twins doubled down on their talented but oft-injured center fielder, signing Byron Buxton to a $100 million extension before the lockout, and came out of the monthslong transaction freeze with a bevy of moves that bolstered their pitching (adding Sonny Gray from the Oakland A’s) and freed up payroll for Correa (sending Josh Donaldson and the $50 million remaining on his contract to the Yankees as part of a multifaceted trade).
“We would be honest with ourselves with who we have and what we can do,” Baldelli said about whether it was worth it to Go For It again. “And if I'm being honest, I think we can win right now.”
The Twins know what winning in the regular season looks like. But for 18 years now, they have only ever lost in October. The team enters 2022 needing to not only move on from a losing season last summer, but a lingering curse that has seen them drop 18 straight postseason games dating back to 2004. In Correa, though, they’ve found a leader-by-example who, at only 27 years old, has shined on baseball’s biggest stage. Even if he leaves after one year, the Twins are betting on him leaving a lasting impact.
“I want to take on that challenge,” Correa said. “It was not long ago when I was playing for an organization that was last in the big leagues the year before I got there, losing 100 plus games. So I know what it takes to build a championship culture within the clubhouse … I see that here with the team that we have. And I see that we can get so much better in order for us to accomplish the goal to ultimately win a championship.”