I would generally agree with this overall, but I would perhaps add the following:
The transports would have had some warning that the Center Force was coming. While their escorts would have put up a fight, I believe the transports themselves also would have "been maneuvered" to the best of abilities to minimize losses (at a cost of disruption of the invasion.)
Additionally, it should be noted that Center Force would be arriving late in the day. When they turned back, Halsey says it was late afternoon, and they were back in San Bernardino by 2200...10 PM. Had they kept coming instead, these times would now apply to their arrival among the transports instead. A night action would then follow. I have no idea how darkness would have fit all this. I don't know how the transports would have used it. It is likely that 7th Fleet's older battleships would have been engaged at night. The Japanese were known to be good at night fighting. However, the US had made progress of their own in this regard by this time. Halsey's 2 fastest battleships would have shown up around 1 AM "as scheduled" and that should be factored in. Also, night air ops. It would have gone into the history books as another night time encounter, with the next morning spelling the end of Center Force, with McCain arriving in strength, and the rest of the surface units Halsey had sent having also arrived.
My take on it.
I always thought this was a fun question.
As I see it,
1) Once the IJN Center Force disengages the Taffies to get into the Gulf, the escort carriers can get reorganized and get back to normal flight ops. They had at least some anti-shipping ordnance left, as I understand. So they keep attacking like gnats.
2) The cruisers, destroyers and other smaller protection near the beach were a significant force. They would put up a fight, costing the IJN time to organize.
3) The beach is a target rich environment. It would be hard for the Center Force to do real damage to the number of targets necessary to matter
4) The USN Surigao Straight force is old, but potent. Preponderance of HE on the USN battleships, but enough AP to
hurt Kurita with their excellent fire control.
5) While all those spit ball fights are going on Halsey get within range and his tired pilots, who have had a least several hours sleep over night make the coup de grace raids the next day.
6) Anything left gets crushed when Halsey's BB's and other surface units finally get in range.
Lots of noise, violence and chaos for one bloody afternoon near the beach and the IJN is done in the next day. They don't have the tools for a flat out slug fest. And once they turn into the Gulf they can not run away.
Anyway, that was the Ride of the Valkyries I always saw the IJN trapped in.
I watched a documentary today about this battle. They kinda made it sound like the IJN just nearly won. Ok so I have some questions.
If the IJN BB force had not retreated and kept attacking.
How long until they could have destroyed our invasion fleet.
How long would it have taken the 7th fleet warships to engage. I know these were the older BBs but would have put up quite a fight.
How long would it have taken the 3rd fleet carrier planes and warships to engage.