Unless something dramatically changes, Carlos Correa will be playing next season in a different uniform. It’s not an idea many Houston fans want to think about, but it’s the unfortunate reality. Though the Houston Astros front office clearly seems fine with that, I believe they will come to regret that decision before too long.
Correa is one of the sport’s premier talents. He’s a top notch defender with a cannon for an arm, and he plays a premium position. He’s also an impact hitter, a postseason hero and a true leader in the locker room. Beyond that, he’s also 26 years old and just entering his prime. Most teams would gladly trade their incumbent shortstop for him.
The Houston Astros will regret not signing Carlos Correa to an extension.
Yet the Astros didn’t make much effort to sign him to a contract extension before the season began, leaving him set for free agency this winter. GM James Click simply was not comfortable coming anywhere close to Correa’s demands, reportedly saying the team simply doesn’t do big, long-term contracts. Some might say that’s shrewd, and in many cases that’s true.
But the Astros have already seen Dallas Keuchel, Gerrit Cole and George Springer leave via free agency, and they could also lose Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke in addition to Correa. The team should still contend either way, but you can’t argue the team is better without Correa. The front office seems to think they can replace him, but that won’t be so easy.
Perhaps Click was counting on replacing Correa from within. Unfortunately, the team’s top shortstop prospect, Jeremy Pena, is set to miss the minor league season thanks to a wrist injury. While he’s probably major league ready on defense, Pena’s bat is a question mark, and the injury means he’ll go two full seasons without hitting in a real minor league game.
The 23-year-old has never played above Class-A, so there’s simply no way he’ll be ready to take the starting job in 2022. If Click still believes Pena is the long-term answer, he’ll have to find a stopgap for next year. Even then, Pena is still no guarantee. He could turn out to be another Adam Everett — great glove with a below average bat — or even just a utility player.
While Pena is ranked as the team’s fourth-best prospect, they also have their sixth-ranked prospect, Freudis Nova. The problem there is Nova is still just 21 and also hasn’t played past A-ball, and he’s more raw and needs more development before he’ll be major league ready. So in other words, the team’s 2022 starting shortstop is not in its minor league system right now.
It is certainly possible that the Astros will shift Alex Bregman over to shortstop and find a new third baseman, perhaps giving Abraham Toro the job. Unfortunately Toro has hit only .175/.261/.311 in 64 major league games, so he hasn’t looked like the answer. Aledmys Diaz might be a better option, but he’ll always have health concerns.
Then you also have to factor in that every one of these options is a step down. Bregman can handle short but probably isn’t as good as Correa defensively. Both Toro and Diaz are a step down at third from Bregman, and both are a step down offensively from Correa. They could make it work, of course, but the team wouldn’t be better off.
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The Astros could trade for a replacement, but the minor league system is consistently ranked in the bottom third in the game, so Click may not want to further deplete what prospect depth we have. With an oft-injured Forrest Whitley being the clear top prospect, Click may not even have enough ammo to bring in an impact replacement.
That leaves the free agent market. If the Astros won’t give out a long-term deal to Correa, we can safely say the top tier guys like Corey Seager and Trevor Story aren’t coming to Houston either. Click would probably end up reeling in someone along the likes of Jose Iglesias, or maybe Marcus Semien or Andrelton Simmons if their markets stay low enough. But none will be an upgrade over Correa.
In spite of that, fans might be willing to accept it if we knew there was no reasonable alternative. We knew Springer was gone because he wanted to go, and because the Astros couldn’t pay him what he wanted while keeping the rest of the roster intact. The same was true of Cole. But with the Verlander and Greinke contracts coming off the books as well, it’s not that the Astros can’t afford Correa. It’s that they don’t want to pay him.
They’re going to let him leave, recoup a measly draft pick as compensation and then replace him with an inferior player. The roster will not be better, and there’s no evidence it will be better in the long term either, at least not at the shortstop position. The front office might like its financial flexibility, but the shortstop position will lack star power, and the team will definitely miss that.