While it is still hoped that the Astros can re-sign shortstop Carlos Correa, the odds seem less than 50% that he will return. There are no players who can replace everything Correa supplied the ballclub but there are other ways to fill the shortstop position and soldier on. Without making much publicity about it, the Astros do have other options should Correa sign elsewhere.
Pena: Shortstop short list
(c) Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle
The heir apparent is 24-year-old Jeremy Pena, the son of former big league infielder Geronimo Pena. He was ranked by Baseball Prospectus as the 100th-best prospect in 2020 and 82nd-best last spring. He's also the fourth-best prospect in the Astros' system according to their own website.
Pena needed wrist surgery last year, returned to rookie-league ball to complete his rehab, then joined the AAA Sugar Land Skeeters for the final month of the season. He impressed with a .287 batting average and a .944 OPS in 30 games. He also showed positive signs with the glove, posting a .970 fielding percentage. It appears the surgery has not hindered him either in the field or at the plate.
He also played this winter for Estrellas in the Dominican League where he batted .291 with a .774 OPS, again in 30 games. Due to injuries and the COVID crisis, Pena hasn't had as much time as the Astros would like to develop into a big leaguer but it seems he has the tools and just needs to make that final transition to the majors.
It is hard to project with such a small sample size but I would anticipate a rookie year hitting around .240 and any power Houston gets from him would be gravy. He would be starting at the bottom of the pay scale so he would definitely be the best answer financially.
Another internal answer could be 23-year-old Pedro Leon, a Cuban signee. The Astros converted him from the outfield to play short and he split most of his 2021 season, his first in America, between AA Corpus Christi and AAA Sugar Land. Leon hit .249 with an .803 OPS in 52 games at Corpus then batted .131 in 17 games at Sugar Land. He participated in the Arizona Fall League where he hit .257 in 20 games for Glendale. Ideally, he should get another full season in the minors before getting called up to the parent club.
Instead of putting all the pressure on Pena or Leon, the Astros could decide to move existing players, sign a free agent or make a trade to fill the shortstop gap.
Alex Bregman was drafted as a shortstop and has played at short in the majors when Correa has been unavailable. Moving him permanently to short, though, only transfers the problem to another position and ultimately weakens two infield spots.
Aledmys Diaz is another possibility. The utility infielder was a shortstop in St. Louis and Toronto before coming to Houston in 2019 but, oddly, the Astros have been hesitant to play Diaz there. He's appeared in just 14 games over three seasons at short and his fielding percentage while there indicates perhaps it's no long a good position for him.
How about signing a free agent to replace Correa? The only remaining "name" shortstop other than Correa is Trevor Story. A 29-year-old product of Irving, TX, the two-time All-Star is hoping for similar money to Correa but will probably have to settle for less.
A career .272 hitter with 30+ homer power, Story's stats have been aided by playing at Denver's Coors Field. He's a .303 batter (.972 OPS) in the thin air of Colorado but just a .241 hitter (.752 OPS) at sea level. Buyer beware.
Anybody else out there? There are still some other free agents who would cost a lot less but all, obviously, come with some liabilities. Former Angel Andrelton Simmons is one who used to bedevil the Astros but his numbers dipped to .223 (.558 OPS) last year with the Twins and, at 32, may have lost his game. Still, he was a four-time gold glove winner that hit .282 (.718 OPS) in his final three seasons in Anaheim (2018-20), he could be worth a flier in a low, "prove-it" contract.
Another shortstop who deserves a look is Jose Iglesias, another Cuban who is a career .277 hitter (.700 OPS), mostly with Boston and Detroit. The 32-year-old split time last year between the Angels and the Red Sox, batting .271 (.701 OPS) in 137 games. His fielding nosedived last season so there is concern there but it might have been just a fluky year with the glove.
As far as trades go, the best candidate is the Rangers' Isiah Kiner-Falefa, known as "Hawaiian Hustle". With Arlington adding Marcus Semien and Corey Seager to mega-deals, Kiner-Falefa is probably forced out at shortstop where he batted .271 last year (.670 OPS). Isiah, who will be 27 before next season starts, won a gold glove at third base in 2020 and had two years at catcher before this so he can be useful at several positions. It could be difficult negotiating with a division foe, however.
Out of all of these, I think the most prudent move is to sign Iglesias (who should be available at under $5 million per year) and pair him with Pena. The rookie would get the majority of starts but Iglesias would serve as both a utility player and insurance policy in case Pena struggles.
Here's a bonus: Pena (in 30 games) hit much better against righthanders (.319 BA, 1.039 OPS) than against lefties (.207, .544). Iglesias is better against lefties (.291, .759) than righties (.272, .679) making for a natural platoon situation. Iglesias' salary should make him expendable if Pena exceeds expectations but he'd still be a suitable stopgap if called on to play full-time.
None of these choices will fully replace Correa. None of these should feel that sort of pressure. But the Astros have a position to fill if Carlos goes elsewhere and these are a number of possible options that James Click has to keep the rest of the lineup competitive as they defend their American League crown.
- Bob Hulsey