How Astros homecoming brings sharp reminder of uncertain future

Carlos Correa makes his return to Houston on Tuesday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

The Astros have exactly zero regrets about not loading up the Brinks truck of cash it would have taken to resign Carlos Correa. Still, Correa will get a prodigal son returns type of welcome at Minute Maid Park as he plays against the Astros for the first time in his career with the Minnesota Twins in town for a three game series Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights. Correa missed the three early season Astros-Twins games in Minneapolis because of an injured finger. The video tribute is a given, and while it won’t be a particularly large crowd since it’s a Tuesday night against the Twins (even with dollar hot dogs!) most of those in attendance will give Correa a rightfully warm ovation. Correa’s glorious Astros moments are several. At the top is probably his 2019 game two American League Championship Series game winning home run over the Yankees with the runner-up his 2020 ALCS game five game winning homer vs. the Rays. After the pregame pomp and circumstance, Correa more or less becomes just another opponent.

Correa vs. Peña

Let’s be clear. Purely as baseball talents no big league team would rather have Jeremy Peña at shortstop right now than Carlos Correa. Peña has been awful offensively for going on three months now. As a rookie who wasn’t expected to be a stud he doesn’t deserve blame but reality is he’s one of the several problems in the Astros’ lineup. Correa is much better at the plate but does not rank among the elite hitters in the game. If still with the Astros Correa would be their fifth best lineup cog after Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker.

Jim Crane and his ownership partners are giddy to have Peña playing for the major league minimum salary of 700 thousand dollars versus the tick over 35 million bucks Correa is pulling down from the Twins. However, Peña’s potential is not close to what Correa’s was. Coincidentally they share a birthday. Correa turns 28 September 22, Peña turns 25. That means Jeremy is no young phenom, though it looks like he should be a capable shortstop for a few years and be so on the cheap. If Peña is to be a plus offensive player he absolutely must improve his strike zone judgment and management. Peña's 103 strikeouts with just 19 walks tells the story.

Looking ahead

Correa is expected to opt out of the two years left on his Twins contract and re-try free agency. The Astros won’t be dreaming of a reunion and are likely happy that Correa rejected their final offer last offseason of five years 160 million dollars. I’m sure Correa doesn’t regret not taking that offer, but as of the current standings he will not be playing in any playoff games this year. The Twins though are in close races for the AL Central title and for one of the three AL Wild Card spots. As for his second free agent go round financial prospects, only a desperate and/or stupid team would give him something approaching the 10 years 325 million the Rangers gave Corey Seager or the 10 years 341 million the Mets threw at Francisco Lindor. How’s that 14 year 340 mil contract the Padres lavished upon 22-year-old Fernando Tatis working out so far? But all it takes is one desperate and/or stupid team and Correa’s agent Scott Boras will be on the prowl.

Correa is a very good player but has had only one superstar level offensive season and that was five years ago. The defensive analytics say his play in the field has fallen this year from his Gold Glove farewell Astros season. Correa is a big guy who is not likely to age well defensively in his 30s, not as a shortstop anyway. Moving to third could be in his future but he doesn’t hit like Alex Rodriguez did for years or the way Manny Machado does now, hence Correa’s long term value projection further declines. Still, there will be a market for him even though he will not be the obvious crown jewel free agent shortstop. Also on the board this offseason will be the Red Sox’ Xander Bogaerts, the Braves’ Dansby Swanson, and Dodgers’ stud Trea Turner. If Boston moves on from Bogaerts could the Alex Cora-managed Sox be in play? Ditto the richy-rich Dodgers with Turner, probably much less so the Braves with Swanson. The Yankees’ best prospect is a shortstop but prospects are prospects. How do the Yanks react if they go down in flames short of the World Series for the 13th consecutive season? Bank on Anthony Volpe being their next Derek Jeter or go for a proven big league commodity?

Correa’s future is up in the air. The Astros will celebrate his past before the series opener. Then hope his present includes 0-4.

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It more of the same from the Houston Texans. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

Sunday afternoon provided a high-res snapshot of the state of Houston sports. The Astros, already assured of the best record in the American League, played a game they didn’t need to win. The Astros won, ho-hum, their 104th win of the season.

Meanwhile, eight miles away, the Texans, mired in last place with fan support dwindling, played a game they really needed to win. The Texans lost 34-24 to the Los Angeles Chargers in front of (giggle) 69,071 fans at NRG Stadium. The Texans really ought to stop saying the stands are packed. Every time a team punts, and cameras follow the ball skyward, there are thousands of empty seats on display. I know the NFL methodology for determining attendance, (total tickets sold, no-shows don’t count) but it just looks silly when the Texans announce 69,000 fans.

The Texans came close as usual before sputtering to another defeat. The Texans now stand at 0-3-1, the only winless team in the NFL. It’s the second time in three years they’ve started a season without a victory after four games. It’s telling to note that not one of the Texans opponents has a winning record for 2022.

In other words, the Texans have played four games they shoulda/coulda won. Shouda against the Colts, Broncos and Bears, and coulda against the Chargers.

Should/coulda four wins. Instead, none.

That’s the Texans. They’re in every game but can’t close the deal. Yeah, yeah, on Monday we hear, “the Texans are playing hard for coach Lovie Smith” and “they’re competitive” and “they’re a young team.” These are NFL equivalents of a participation trophy.

Sunday’s loss to the Chargers at NRG Stadium was straight out of the Texans playbook. Fall behind, make it interesting, lose. The Texans stuck to their script, timid play calling, momentum-crushing penalties (nine for 67 yards), self-inflicted drops, lackluster quarterbacking and Rex Burkhead on the field for crunch time. After one play where a Texan player was called for holding, the announcer said, “and he did a poor job of holding.”

Statuesque quarterback David Mills keeps saying “we’re in a good spot” and “we’re improving.” Statuesque as in he doesn’t move – or barely moves to avoid sacks. Sunday saw his first touchdown pass to a wide receiver. He’s now thrown four interceptions in the past two games. Let’s go to the tote board: 5 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 4 fumbles, 11 sacks, qbr rating 28.5 – good for 28th in the league.

A bright spot, sort of. This was the first week the Texans didn’t cover the spread. They’re now 1-2-1 against Vegas oddsmakers, meaning you’ve won money if you took the Texans all four weeks. They head to Jacksonville next as early 6.5-point underdogs.

Meanwhile, Alabama’s brilliant quarterback Bryce Young, who will be available for the Texans when they draft first in 2023 (as Paul Heyman says, that’s not a prediction, that’s a spoiler), suffered a shoulder injury last Saturday. The Texans need to take out a Lloyds of London insurance policy on Young.

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