Correa who? How Jeremy Pena replaced an Astros icon, without the team losing a step

    Previously a Staff Writer at Bleacher Report
    Cornell University graduate

THIS WINTER, THE Houston Astros were at a fork in the road.

Their longtime shortstop, Carlos Correa, was one of the faces of the franchise, a player who stood up for the clubhouse amid the criticism the team faced from its trash-can-banging, sign-stealing scandal. He was one of the first players the Astros chose during their years of tanking under Jeff Luhnow’s front office, a No. 1 overall pick with high expectations who had lived up to his promise in the major leagues.

But Astros GM James Click knew re-signing Correa would cost the team resources that could instead go toward building depth. When Click came to Houston in 2020, he hoped to create a sustainable winner in the model of the Los Angeles Dodgers and his previous team, the Tampa Bay Rays. Signing Correa to an expensive, long-term contract would chip away at that vision.

More importantly, the team already had a succession plan in mind: Jeremy Peña.

Peña had been in Houston’s system since 2018, when he was drafted in the third round. He was playing in Triple-A by 2021, ranked as the 48th best prospect in baseball by ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel ahead of the 2022 season. On Opening Day, Peña became the first player other than Correa to start at shortstop for the Astros since 2015, but the rookie has picked up where his predecessor left off — as a key cog in a team playing in its fourth World Series in six years.

Peña, who Tuesday became the first rookie shortstop to win a Gold Glove, has sparked the Astros with his offense, too. On the biggest stage, he’s put together an incredible stretch, hitting .333/.357/.648 with four homers in 12 postseason games, including the go-ahead homer in the 18th inning of Game 3 of the ALDS against the Seattle Mariners. He won ALCS MVP honors against the New York Yankees with homers in Games 1 and 4. On Thursday, he became the first rookie shortstop in MLB history with a hit in five straight World Series games — and the first ever to hit a home run in the Fall Classic.

In other words: Correa who?

“[Peña] wasn’t trying to be anybody but himself. He said that from day one,” teammate Alex Bregman said. “He understood how good Carlos has been and what he meant to every single person in here. His only focus was just to be Jeremy and he’s stuck with that the whole year. He’s trying to play his game and leave his legacy.”

And while Peña’s performance catapulted him into the Rookie of the Year conversation, his poise allowed him not just to replace a franchise player, but to come through in October.

“I felt confident in my abilities,” Peña said. “Not just defense, not just hitting. I felt like I could do a little bit of everything. I knew I could hit. I knew I could run. I knew I could throw, could field. It was a matter of getting the opportunity and taking advantage.”

WHEN THE ASTROS envisioned Peña taking over for Correa, they imagined a player who would be ready to play elite defense on Day 1. After all, he’d been perfecting his glovework since his summers growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, where Peña and his older and younger brothers, Austin and Carlos, created a game they called “Big League.”

The rules of “Big League” were simple: Throw the ball hard off a concrete wall and field the quick bounceback cleanly to earn a point. If you grabbed 10 ground balls in a row, you’d get 10 points and a spot on a minor league team. The next 10 grounders might send you up a level, from short-season ball to High-A, and so on. But if you missed one, you’d be demoted. The winner was the first brother to make it all the way to the major leagues.

“We would be playing for hours and we’ve caught like 600 ground balls, not even thinking about it,” Peña said. “We were just having fun. My older brother [Austin] was always the first to get to the big leagues. I would be stuck in Double-A and my little brother would not even be signed.”

When the New England winters came, Peña found another wall — this one in his family’s basement — and threw a yellow batting cage ball against it, to work on his hands. He’d pick up balls barehanded, backhanded — any way he could to improve.

“Baseball, you gotta have your foundation,” Peña said. “You gotta have your fundamentals. When you play games like that, then you have that in your back pocket. You know you can dive and throw the ball from a knee.”

When Peña showed up to baseball tryouts at Providence’s Classical High School as a freshman, head coach Ken Wnuk didn’t hold back. Wnuk always liked to put infielders to the test immediately, hitting grounders hard and seeing how they reacted to bad bounces on the particularly patchy baseball fields of the Northeast. Peña handled them with ease.

“I don’t pussyfoot around with ground balls,” Wnuk said. “But he made all the plays, all the throws and I’m just thinking, ‘This kid is f—ing good.'”

When University of Maine head coach Nick Derba first scouted Peña as a high school sophomore, he saw a fluidity to the shortstop’s hands, with footwork and instincts exceeding his expectations for a 16-year-old player.

“He was a Double-A shortstop as a sophomore in high school,” Derba said. “I watched him take one ground ball and I thought he was the best defender in the country.”

The Peña family’s affinity for baseball, though, didn’t start with three young boys finding creative ways to play the game they loved.

It started with Peña’s father, Geronimo, an infielder for St. Louis and Cleveland who played his last game in the major leagues in 1998, a year after Jeremy Peña was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

When Peña was nine, the family moved to Providence to be near family. There, Peña truly began his love affair with baseball, often heading out with his dad to field hundreds if not thousands of ground balls in a single session. At McCoy Stadium in nearby Pawtucket, the former home of the Boston Red Sox Triple-A affiliate, Peña would watch players like Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Josh Reddick and Daniel Nava make their mark.

“I grew up a big fan, but I also wanted to be in it,” Peña said. “I would go to a game, and while everyone’s rooting for the home runs, I was paying attention to the pre-pitch hop, what players were doing, how they were moving. I was watching what the players were doing on deck, watching the little things.”

His father, a big league role model under the same roof, shared stories from his career, giving his son a sense of the baseball lifestyle and work ethic it would require to follow his childhood heroes to the majors.

“It gives you a sense that it’s possible,” Peña said.

The Atlanta Braves saw something in Peña, selecting him in the 39th round of the 2015 MLB Draft. Peña chose to not sign, and instead headed to the University of Maine, where he’d earn a spot on the America East Conference All-Rookie team. He spent his summers playing in the New England Collegiate Baseball League with the Plymouth Pilgrims, then later with the Chatham Angels in the Cape Cod Baseball League, where he was named an All-Star.

After a breakout season in his junior year, Peña was drafted by the Astros in the third round of the 2018 draft. Derba — who himself was selected in the 30th round of the 2007 draft by the Cardinals, and made it as far as Triple-A — has seen many players get drafted. But Peña’s goal, he said, was about more than getting drafted, and more, too, than even reaching the major leagues.

“He hadn’t gotten to where he wanted to be yet,” said Derba.

WITH THE LARGER plan of replacing Correa in mind, the Astros added Peña to their taxi squad during the 2021 postseason, hoping to expose him to the pressure of the big leagues, even if only from the bench. They wanted him to absorb the veteran influence of Jose Altuve and Bregman. Just a few months later, after seeing him adjust so well to the major league clubhouse, Click felt comfortable moving forward with Peña at shortstop for 2022.

“He just looked the part of a very talented major league shortstop,” Click said. “Letting go of Carlos was obviously a very difficult decision. Not easy by any means, but these are the kind of things we have to do in order to keep this franchise winning, to be able to withstand the inevitable losses.”

The expectation for Peña was that he was going to be a defense-first shortstop. With the strength of the Astros’ lineup, hitting like Correa wasn’t a requirement.

But Peña’s game proved to include some pop, too. The rookie hit .263/.310/.454 with 13 homers in the first half, and ended the season hitting .253/.289/.426 with 22 homers — tied with Correa for sixth among all MLB shortstops. His 4.8 bWAR wasn’t far off from Correa’s 5.4.

“We were extremely confident that he would be able to hold down shortstop from a defensive position and add value that way,” Click said. “The offense — not that it was gravy, but it gave us high confidence of where the floor was for him.”

Peña’s success has been a part of the Astros’ evolution into a perennial juggernaut, a player development factory with established veterans and young rising stars like Yordan Alvarez, Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier. Correa went on to sign with the Minnesota Twins for a $35.1 million annual salary, and, because of Peña, the Astros haven’t missed a step at shortstop.

He’s a crucial part of the Astros’ lineup, and his homers in big October moments have come as no surprise to teammates like designated hitter Trey Mancini.

“The way he carries himself is like a 10-year veteran,” Mancini said. “Just so cool, calm, collected in every situation. The first day I met him, I remember I got traded over [from Baltimore] and I kept forgetting this kid’s a rookie.”

Astros manager Dusty Baker was immediately impressed by the way Peña handled the media attention, unusual for a player who did not come up as a highly touted prospect.

“You could tell by his brightness in his eyes and his alertness on the field that he wasn’t scared and he wasn’t fazed by this,” Baker said. “Boy, he’s been a godsend for us, especially since we lost Carlos.”

Peña certainly wasn’t fazed in Game 5 of the World Series, homering and driving in two runs to help put the Astros one win from a championship.

“What he’s done this year was similar to when I saw a young Andruw Jones as a young player with the Braves against the Yankees [in the 1996 World Series],” Baker said. “Every once in a while these guys come along, not that often, but it just goes to show you, I mean, his future is very, very bright.”

Now, Peña finds himself on the cusp of baseball history.

“You dream about this stuff when you’re a kid,” Peña said of playing October baseball. “Shout out to my teammates. We show up every single day. We stayed true to ourselves all year. We’re a step away from our ultimate goal.”

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