The burden of Opening Day
Another season is starting as I write, and that was far from a sure thing given the disaster called “lockout”, a fracture between players and owners that came oh so close a death sentence on the 2022 MLB calendar.
In an offseason halted by the possibility of not having a season at all dynamics and events changed fast, trades and FA signings happened up to today, and more are to come (where you at Michael Conforto?!). Between obvious reunions, Kershaw forever a Dodger and Zack Greinke a Royal as he started, surprising divorces, Freeman out of Atlanta in LA blue, and minor transactions, good luck figuring out each team’s 40 man roster!
That said, one of the most pressing topics after the CBA agreement was reached had a name and no destination: where was Carlos Correa going to sign? To his preposterous yet deserved demand, a long term contract upwards of $300M, it almost seemed like an offer wasn’t there, although Cubs, Tigers and other teams were all linked to 6+ year deals and high $ total, and at a certain point, with all other options off the table and the Yankees trading for Isiah Kiner Falefa, I thought a reunion in Houston was more than possible.
Scratch that: Correa will be a Twin in Minnesota for a year or so! An advantageous contract that allows him to opt out if he performs yet again as the best SS in baseball or otherwise stay in place at an AAV over $35M making him the highest paid infielder in baseball history, Carlos, along with newcomer Gary Sanchez and known faces of the Bomba Squad in Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler, will try to finally bring Minny over the hump, a deep run in October and finally a series win against the Yankees. Sure, they’ll have to do it with a miserable pitching staff, Bailey Ober, not that Bailey, and Sonny Gray their best arms in a shallow rotation.
With Correa out of town and no prized gem in the FA market to pouch, the Astros turned yet again to their fabled player development system: as George Springer departed destination Toronto in came the McCormick/Meyers duo from the AAA ranks; when Gerrit Cole signed an astronomical deal with NY the slack was up to minor league youngsters such as Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and Cristian Javier; and now, as Correa rejoices with Buxton at Target Field, Houston needs yet another homegrown prospect to show up and somehow fill a 7+ WAR hole in the middle of the lineup.
Good luck, Jeremy Peña!
As much as playing in the big leagues is everyone’s dream and mine too, I wouldn’t be so enthusiast being in Peña’s shoes: expectations are sky-high and a face-of-the-franchise void is too much to cover even for the most talented athlete out there, which is not to say Peña isn’t, although forget about having another Correa for at least 3 years or so.
He’ll be warmly greeted as he steps on the plate for the first time, and he’ll be forgiven a slow start, but if he’s still hitting a light .210 come August don’t be surprised if he’ll get booed and criticized by media and fans alike: at the end of the day Click and co deemed you good enough to take Correa’s reins, or more likely they didn’t want to sign such an expensive deal alas Crane didn’t gave them such a chance, so you either sink or swim.
I’m here to shed a light on him and what to expect as he’ll slot at #8 in what is still the deepest lineup in the AL, at-bat quality-wise. Let’s start with his prospect ratings as scout saw him being drafted from University of Maine and make a quick ascent to the Majors:
As you may know we are in the Golden Era of young shortstops: stars a la Fernando Tatis Jr are already changing the game, Wander Franco is the face of the Rays present and future and Bobby Witt Jr that of the Royals from 2022 on. Heck, the Yankees traded for a stopgap instead of signing a Story or Correa given their faith for upcoming talented SS in Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe!
Where does Peña fit in? Right in the middle of things as it stands: his calling card has always been his defense, one made of instincts, reactions and soft hands rather than range and arm strenght, long gone are the days of human gunslinger Carlos Correa in that aspect. Among highly touted SS prospects he is the better defender of the bunch and already showed his prowess in Spring Training, with jumping catches and smooth double plays:
The real question has always been his bat: drafted as a light hitting SS in the mold of several other infielders, Peña changed a lot in his short Minors career, hitting the gym regularly and conditioning made him a true Adonis, or Adolis if you prefer, a jacked up, tight-fitting physical specimen that bodes well in terms of power potential.
On the other hand, his hit tool took a hit or two in the process: even in the latest projections he’s primed a below to average hitter at best, with a profile that is now driven more by pull power than bat control, although his above average discipline, high contact rates and low Chase% should help him figure out MLB sooner rather than later:
Being a defensive wizard helps! Even in the worst case, a wRC+ less than 90, he gets close to a decent 2 WAR on the account of his fielding, a floor that makes him a good bet to stay in the limelight for a while.
Floors are for utilities though, what every team wants is a high ceiling to look at when all is said and done, and Peña widened his array of possible performances at the cost of a much higher risk of bust in the hitting part: a 45 bat, he smashed few and scattered bombs all throughout the Minors until last year, in which after he came back from wrist surgery he proceeded to demolish Triple A in 140 ABs or so at an ISO over .300, pressing for more attention from the pundits and the Astros FO alike.
Should we believe in his newfound pop? Yes and no: while Jeremy is much more physical than your average SS, his swing is one of the weirdest in all of baseball and not in a good way.
As he starts his motion, Peña levels the bat almost parallel to the ground behind him, wrists doing the brunt of the job, a stance that reminds me of a Minnesota icon and a Beastie Boys banger: does he got mad hits like he was Rod Carew? I truly hope so!
Then it gets even stranger: now into his swing with a slight leg kick, Peña goes full rotational on his core and slashes his bat like a katana, direct to the ball in a short yet powerful stroke that lacks the windmill action of many others, to then finish well open and out in front, with his whole body staring at LF.
This is a unique look and personally an uncomfortable one: while his swing produces an innatural amount of power and makes him a Line Drive Machine when he gets to the ball, having such a straight bat path leaves him a shorter margin for error. I don’t think he’ll have any issue catching up to 95+ mph heat, even up in the zone as his bat is quick enough to get there and smash the proverbial out of it, but breaking balls down and away? That’s where I’m doubtful.
His motion is so rotational, almost exasperatedly so that he has to time sliders and curveballs to perfection, otherwise his front side is bound to leak out in front and leave him no shot at putting the ball in play. As every pitcher now throws gas and a disgusting breaking ball it’ll be interesting to see if Jeremy can both punish heaters and adapt on not-so-straight offerings: I’m almost certain that, even in the last third of the lineup, he won’t have many chances at 4FB and sinkers so his performance against Breaking and Offspeed will be my point of focus moving forward.
Lastly, what to expect from Peña in his first MLB season? To have a clearer look at things I searched for comparable players, SS prospects that became household names later on with similar hit/power/fielding ratings to that of Jeremy, going back to 2017 prospect rankings. Two players stood out for how close they resemble Peña’s skillset and performance range:
Not bad, not great though! Dansby Swanson is the man you’d want your daughter to marry but his career as a baseball players has been all ups, amazing defense, and downs, mediocre bat, up until the last year or so when, hiding in the depths of a solid Braves lineup, he found pop and proceeded to post his best season in 2021; J.P. Crawford was the SS of the future in Philly thanks to his precise bat and outstanding defensive capabilities, the latter exactly what the Phillies would need now with their lineup being one of the worst fielding black holes in memory, but he’s now the present in Seattle, at least until Noelvi Marte looms in the Minors.
Both are amazing without the bat and below average with it, in different ways though: Crawford is a much better hitter, almost devoid of power though he climbed to the 10 HR plateau in 2021, Swanson has serious, 20+ HR pop although he’s strikeout prone, walks a bit and chases far too much to comfort.
This is also the spectrum of Peña’s possible outcomes: he could buy in on his power potential sacrificing some contact, a slugger with good BB% even with a high K% would be amazing considered his SS mastery, or he could focus on putting the ball in play, paying the price with less pop and more singles and extra-base hits in the Yuli Gurriel school of thought. Don’t forget than Minute Maid and those Crawford Boxes are kind to RHB pull hitters, Altuve and Bregman to name a few, so Jeremy could benefit of it without having to draw back on his unusual swing.
It’s not going to be a swift and smooth process though: both Swanson and Crawford needed consistent ABs and more than a season, or a couple, to figure out MLB before reaching their peak at 3+ WAR, which is also what I expect Peña to set at barring further explosions on his bat or, unfortunately, too big of holes in his game.
This is the most important thing of all: Jeremy Peña is not, and probably will never be or come close to, Carlos Correa.
The latter is a unicorn, a well above average hitter with a cannon for an arm, range for days, a knack for the big moment, Postseason success and a reputation as clubhouse and field general. You don’t get those often, and it’s not fair to compare Jeremy to Carlos, apples to oranges.
Peña will be fine and maybe some more, not a perennial MVP candidate and franchise icon but possibly a Gold Glover in a highly demanding position that can also send a fair amount of baseballs into the stands. Do I mind a Dansby Swanson as my shortstop? Surely I don’t! Would I rather have a Carlos Correa? Surely I do, but he’s going to cost you and that price wasn’t apparently right for Crane, Click and the Astros FO.
It’s the dawn of a new season and Houston still stands as the team to beat in the AL West, and one of the best teams in the American and the whole League for that matters.
As a fan, having your stars depart at the tune of one every offseason is something hard to get accustomed to, more so if the team’s payroll is usually around $200M and not in the depths of hell like in Tampa or Oakland, but that’s the way Houston works: no long term deals apart from in-house extensions, more high-AAV, short term contracts like Verlander to have financial flexibility in the long term.
Is it being smart, penny pinching or plain stupid? Only the diamond will answer.
In the meantime a new stalwart is poised to helm the SS position for the Astros, and that’s quite the inheritance. Jeremy Peña has all the tools to succeed and all the pressure of the world on his shoulders, his past compadre’s footsteps still fresh in the infield dirt, thousands of fans to please and a whole front office begging him not to make them look foolish.
With his unique swing, a violent unleashing of might on a baseball that leaves him throwing his body at the ball more often than not, and defensive potential, Peña will be the player with everyone’s eyes on him, even more than those looking for Bregman’s return to form, Tucker’s confirmation as MVP candidate and Yordan’s growth as a top 20 bat in the game.
Lights on, speakers, crowd, anthem and an umpire’s damning shout.
The Show is back in town, you’re welcome to it Jeremy!
All stats, ranks and graphs from FanGraphs.