WHO'S GOT NEXT?

How the Astros magical World Series run served as a changing of the guard

Astros Jeremy Pena, Kyle Tucker
Jeremy Peña is the toast of the town. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

The 2022 season for the Houston Astros was successful in every way imaginable with the culmination of the franchise’s second ever Commissioner’s Trophy.

For the Astros, the 2022 postseason also served as a changing of the guard in many aspects. Houston saw new stars rise, and above them all, was none other than rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña, who might have just become the new face of the Astros.

The 6-foot native of the Dominican Republic made his mark throughout the playoffs. It began in Game Three of the American League Division Series against the Seattle Mariners. In a marathon that went 18 innings, it was the 102nd overall pick in the 2018 draft that delivered the only run of the game, which powered Houston into the American League Championship Series.

In the ALCS, Peña’s stellar play only continued against the New York Yankees. The rookie had four runs batted in throughout the series and had two home runs.

One of the bombs helped get the Astros back into Game Four. A third inning homer switched the momentum of the game with one flip of the bat, turning a contest that saw the Yankees jump out to a 3-0 lead into a tied one.

Peña later came around to score again in the seventh in that same outing, which tied things up again on an RBI single by Yordan Alvarez. His Game Four performance was a big reason he was named the ALCS Most Valuable Player as Houston swept New York.

In the World Series, Peña scored a run in all games except Game Three. He had three RBI throughout the six games, and he also had strong defensive plays as he helped turn the tide for the Astros. He also managed to snag the MVP of the Fall Classic in the process.

Peña’s success on the field is certainly a big reason why he has garnered a lot of praise, but becoming the face of a franchise goes beyond just on-field play.

When you think of the New York Yankees, you think of Aaron Judge, at least for now. When you think of the Los Angeles Angels, you think of Shohei Ohtani and his MLB The Show commercials, and to an extent Mike Trout, who a few years back starred in Subway commercials.

In the NFL there is Patrick Mahomes and his State Farm commercials, and in the NBA there is LeBron James and what seems like is his always airing AT&T commercial. To compare it to the world of professional wrestling, there are always different stars that can transcend their respective bubble and become known to a casual audience. Or in wrestling terms, be a draw.

Now Peña has a ways to go before he can be considered in the same conversation as those other athletes, but after this year’s World Series, he is certainly the face of the Astros, at least in Houston.

The reason for it is that he draws. Even before the playoffs, Peña’s cameos on the H-E-B and Taqueria Arandas commercials showed his potential. In the postseason, his lore only amplified. His signature heart celebration has become synonymous with the shortstop and has transcended just the Astros.

When Houston Cougars football receiver Nathaniel ‘Tank’ Dell scored a touchdown against Temple, he threw up the heart to the crowd at TDECU Stadium.

When Peña himself stopped by Toyota Center to watch a Houston Rockets game on Monday evening, what was his go-to? The heart pose.

Simply put, Peña has become a rockstar in the city of Houston. When it was announced he was going to make an appearance at a local Raising Cane’s restaurant, there were people that camped out and slept in their cars the day before just to have a chance to see the MVP.

On the day of his appearance, people huddled around the restaurant, ignoring the drizzling rain and cool weather, to shower him with cheers, chants and probably even marriage proposals. Cars stretched around the restaurant and even onto the feeder of the Gulf Freeway hoping to snap a photo of Peña.

Peña still has more to prove, after all, he only completed his rookie season. But, not in a million years would Houston fans have believed they would say “Carlos who?” after just one season without the previous shortstop, who was a prominent, key figure in his own right.

Peña has the swagger, he has the looks, his on the field production speaks for itself, and if the Astros continue to make deep runs in October, he might just be the face of the Astros outside of Houston too.

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It's not time to panic, yet. Composite Getty Image.

This is not a column for fanboys or sugarcoating. To this point in the season the Astros stink like rotten eggs. They stink like Angel Hernandez’s umpiring. They stink like Bill O'Brien's general manager skills. The Astros are a bad team right now. That’s notably different from being a bad team. Their 4-10 record is well-earned and it is definitely possible that the Astros’ run of high quality and annual playoff appearances crashes and burns this season. But it’s laughable to declare so after just 14 games of the 162 scheduled have been played.

Last June the Astros had a lousy window in which they went 3-10. In August they had a 4-8 funk. In September it was a 3-9 stretch of collapse. The 2022 World Series Champions had a 3-8 hiccup in April, and a 2-6 blotch overlapping July and August that included getting swept in a three-game series by the then and now awful Oakland A’s.

Now the Astros are back home (Oh No!) for six games, three vs. the Rangers then three with the Braves. The Rangers lead the American League West but are just 7-6, so despite their cellar-dwelling status, the Astros are just three and a half games out of first. A winning homestand is obviously the goal. No, really. 3-3 would be ok, even though that would just about clinch a losing record heading into May.

Mandatory aside: spectacular weather is the Friday night forecast. Stop being stubborn and lame, Astros. Open the roof! I don’t mean just for the postgame fireworks.

On the mend?

The Astros’ track record of downplaying pitching injuries that turned out to be major certainly causes angst as we await Framber Valdez’s return from a sore elbow. If Valdez ultimately winds up out for months, the Astros’ starting rotation is in deep trouble. Even more so if upon the approaching delayed start to his season, 41-year-old Justin Verlander pitches to his age in terms of results and/or durability. However, if Valdez is ok within a month and JV is solid, those two, and Cristian Javier can stabilize the rotation quite nicely.

The Astros started three guys in the last four games who belong in the minor leagues. It was a sad sign of the times that the Astros were reduced to calling up Blair Henley to make the start Monday in Arlington. Except for Rangers fans and Astros haters, it grew uncomfortable watching Henley give up four hits, walk three, record just one out, and wind up charged with seven earned runs. But it’s not Henley’s fault that he was thrust into a role for which he was utterly unqualified.

Last season at Double-A Corpus Christi, Henley’s earned run average was 5.06. Because of the crummy state of the Astros’ farm system, Henley failed up to Triple-A Sugar Land to start this season. After one not good start for the Space Cowboys, “Hey, go get out big leaguers Blair!” Henley turns 27 next month, he is not a prospect of any note. If he never again pitches in the majors Henley forever carries a 135.00 ERA.

But you know what? It was still a great day for the guy. Even if undeserved, Henley made “The Show.” For one day on the Astros’ 26-man roster, Henley made over four thousand dollars. To make him eligible for call up, the Astros first had to put Henley on their 40-man roster and sign him to a split contract. That means that until/unless the Astros release him, Henley’s AAA salary jumps from approximately $36,000 for the season to over 60K.

Lastly, while Henley’s ERA could remain 135.00 in perpetuity, at least he’s no Fred Bruckbauer. In 1961 Bruckbauer made his big league debut and bade his big league farewell in the same game. He faced four batters, giving up three earned runs on three hits and one walk. Career ERA: Infinity! Bruckbauer is the most recent of the more than a dozen pitchers to retire with the infinity ERA.

Spencer Arrighetti’s debut start went much better. For two innings, before it unraveled in a seven run Royals third. Arrighetti has good stuff, but not great stuff. Control has been an issue for him in the minor leagues. Without better command Arrighetti cannot be a plus starter in the majors.

Then there’s Hunter Brown. We could go decades without seeing another pitcher give up nine runs and 11 hits in two-thirds of an inning as Brown did Thursday. It had never happened in MLB history! To this point, Brown is an overhyped hope. ERA last July: 5.92, August: 6.23, September 1 on: 8.74. Three starts into 2024: 16.43.

Jose Abreu watch

It's still early enough in the season that even just a couple of big games can markedly improve a stat line but Jose Abreu continues to look washed up at the plate. Three hits in 37 at bats (.081 batting average), with the most recent hit a questionable official scoring decision. Manager Joe Espada has already dropped Abreu from fifth in the lineup to sixth, then seventh, then eighth. Two more slots down to go, Joe! Continuing to act like Jon Singleton could be a competent bat in the lineup is just silly though.

Catch the weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week now generally goes up after Sunday’s game (second part released Tuesday, sometimes a third part Wednesday) via YouTube: stone cold stros - YouTubewith the complete audio available via Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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