Latest noise around Carlos Correa puts Astros lineup in focus

Pay the man! Composite image by Jack Brame.

Some time around 7:45 p.m. on April 18, the Astros long-awaited home opener, public address announcer Bob Ford will drive the packed stadium into a frenzy with “Now batting for the Astros, the shortstop, number 1 …

“Carlos Correa!”

The noise-o-meter will redline to a Spinal Tap “11.” Fans will rise and lavish Correa with a long, love-drenched standing ovation.

At least it’s looking more and more that way. While Correa tips his hat to the crowd, his eyes possibly filling with tears that he made the right decision, perhaps fans should turn their gratitude to the two people who really made the moment happen.

Astros general manager James Click and owner Jim Crane.

From the final pitch of the 2021 season, when Correa became a free agent, chances of the brilliant shortstop returning to the Astros were bleak. Correa had a new agent Scott Boras, who’s not exactly known for allowing teams a “hometown discount” or accepting one penny less than absolute top dollar for his clients. Correa reportedly was seeking 10 years and north of $300 million, you know, Francisco Lindor and Corey Seager money.

The Astros offer of $160 million over five years merely wrinkled Correa’s nose. Let’s wait and see what the Yankees, Tigers, Dodgers, Red Sox, and others would cough up. Correa was the hottest free agent on the market. Bring it on! And we’re expecting to see a 3 followed by lots of zeroes.

As the months rolled by and that pesky owners’ lockout lingered, the list of teams interested (and could afford) Correa dwindled. The Yankees, Tigers, Rangers got their shortstops. Other teams decided to stick with what they had.

The only team reportedly to make a solid 10-year, $300 million offer is the Baltimore Orioles, who lost 110 games in 2021, dead last in the American League and tied for the worst record in all of MLB. If Correa likes cashing those post-season checks, Baltimore is not a realistic destination. Can you name one Oriole player? Sorry, Cal Ripken no longer plays for the O’s.

The Astros hung tough and waited out the marketplace. Now Crane is ready, willing and financially able to make a creative offer so both sides can walk away with heads held high. Perhaps $45 million for one year. Correa would be only 28 and still the biggest fish in the pond in 2023. How’s $160 over four years sound? Correa may not get the 10 years he wanted, but he’d beat Lindor and Seager per annum. The Astros clubhouse is giddy over reports that Correa and the Astros are talking.

If Click and Crane (sounds like a wacky morning radio show) can pull this off and keep Correa in the fold, it would be a bargain at any price for the team’s psychology and fans’ confidence in the organization. It’s fun for Houstonians to check the American League standings and see the Astros in first place.

Is Carlos Correa worth $40 million a year? Maybe … not. He’s the best defensive shortstop in baseball and a solid hitter. He’s clutch. He is not a Hall of Famer, though. But he is beloved by Astros fans and Crane would be keeping the customers satisfied. Fans want Crane to “pay the man.”

Either way, with or without Correa, the Astros will be heavy favorites (-145 is the current Vegas line) to win the American League West for the fifth time in six years. It’s become their thing. The Astros are the betting favorite to win the American League pennant and appear in the World Series for the fourth time in six years. And that’s without Correa factored in.

The Mariners are coming off a 90-win season but they haven’t appeared in the post-season in two decades. That’s their thing. In fact, the Mariners’ playoff drought is the longest of any team in America’s four major sports.

The A’s just held an “everything must go” sale that would make those gold-by-the-inch stores on Harwin envious. The Angels have some of the biggest stars and biggest contracts but can’t keep their heads above .500. The Rangers are awful and their ballpark is ugly.

So the Astros don’t really need Carlos Correa. Their lineup is packed with great players and powerful hitters 1-9. OK, maybe not 9. Talented but inexperienced Jeremy Pena, while not Correa, could mind the gap at short. Over recent years, the Astros have lost George Springer, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel and now Zack Greinke. How do the Astros deal with star departures? By going to another World Series.

Now we wait, but hour-by-hour it’s looking better-and-better that Houston keeps their shortstop.

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Ryan Pressly and Kyle Tucker are representing the USA in the WBC. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

I’m hearing voices in Houston sports media calling for the end of the World Baseball Classic – or at least a boycott by the Houston Astros – because Jose Altuve suffered a broken thumb during the Venezuela vs. USA game, will require surgery, and is out for 8-10 weeks.

I know, it sucks that our star second baseball and team leader will miss about a third of the 2023 season. But it wasn’t the World Baseball Classic that threw the 96 mph fastball that struck Altuve in the hand – it was a pitch that got away from Colorado Rockies reliever Daniel Bard – a respected MLB veteran, former first-round draft pick and winner of Comeback Player of the Year in 2020.

It just happened to one of our guys. It happens.

Blaming Altuve’s injury on the World Baseball Classic makes no more sense than pinning Lance McCullers’ latest injury on MLB’s traditional spring training. McCullers was diagnosed with an elbow strain after throwing a bullpen session at Astros camp in West Palm Beach, Fla.

At least Altuve incurred his unfortunate injury facing an experienced MLB veteran in a game that meant a lot to the Astros’ future Hall of Famer. It wasn’t during a meaningless game in Florida against a minor league pitcher with control problems wearing No. 92 on his uniform with no chance of making the parent club.

I like the World Baseball Classic. Judging from TV ratings on Fox Sports channels and large crowds, the event was a success. Teams from 20 countries participated – that’s 14 more countries than sent baseball teams to the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo.

The WBC is growing in popularity and participation. Twenty countries sent teams to the WBC this year, up from 16 last time. Great Britain, the Czech Republic, and Nicaragua sent teams for the first time. They joined squads from traditional baseball powerhouses like the USA, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Japan, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and The Netherlands. Yes, The Netherlands. They take baseball very seriously there.

China and Chinese Taipei played together on the same field. Israel sent a team, including Bellaire Little League product Josh Wolf.

Baseball needs the WBC if it wants to expand its footprint globally like the NBA has, and the NFL is trying to do.

Some are saying, fine, the WBC has its merits but springtime isn’t the right time. Players are out of shape, at least not in midseason baseball shape, and the event is competing for media coverage with March Madness, NFL free agency, and the NBA’s playoff push.

While that’s true, any time of year you picked for the WBC would clash with other big-time sports events. Sports is a yearlong obsession worldwide.

A reasonable rescheduling might be during the middle of the MLB season, during what is now the All-Star break. Soccer takes midseason breaks for tournaments. Sure it will be weird at first for baseball, but the All-Star Game isn’t the attraction or honor it once was. Now players make suspect excuses to avoid playing in it.

Doing away with baseball’s All-Star Game and slotting the WBC in its place might be a good idea. The NFL has all but killed its Pro Ball and replaced it with a silly flag football game that nobody cares about. The NBA All-Star Game is a joke 3-point contest with even less defense than the actual 3-point contest.

And while baseball players may not be in midseason form during the WBC now, it’s not like the old days when players needed spring training to lose winter flab and wake up their muscles from hibernation. Most baseball players stay in shape all year. They have personal trainers, private chefs and workout rooms in their swankiendas. Back when, baseball players worked at local breweries and sponsors’ businesses during the winter to make ends meet. Not today.

Spring training, come on, really is a little ridiculous. The Astros will have played 30 practice games before Opening Day this season. NFL teams play only three preseason games. NBA teams play only four. College football teams play only none.

The championship game of the World Baseball Classic has the USA with its superstar lineup including Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and many more against Japan with some guy named Shohei Ohtani. How perfect is that?

The WBC truly is a “world series” for the sport. It may take a little tinkering but baseball needs it. Even if it hurts at first – more precisely at second if you’re the Astros.

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