MLB Prospect Watch: Astros’ gamble on shortstop Jeremy Peña as Carlos Correa’s successor paying off

Entering the offseason, the biggest question facing the Houston Astros was what they would do with the shortstop position. We know now that the Astros did not re-sign Carlos Correa, who departed through free agency with the third-most appearances at shortstop in franchise history. They did not sign Trevor Story or Javier Báez, or trade for anyone of note, either. The Astros instead signed Niko Goodrum, a non-tender victim in Detroit, to serve as an insurance policy in case top prospect Jeremy Peña proved to be unfit for the job in spring following an injury-shortened 2021.

It’s too early to draw conclusions about the wisdom or effectiveness of Houston’s winter gamble, but Peña’s first week in The Show has offered reason for optimism. After six games, he’s batting .292 / .320 / .500 with three extra-base hits (including a well-timed home run) and an appreciable feel for defending the position.

The latter should not come as a surprise. Peña has been known for his defensive prowess throughout his development. His one error (in 30 chances) came on Opening Day, when he underestimated Mike Trout’s speed on a deep grounder. Peña had to rush his throw, and it was off-line enough for the scorer to hand him an error. Such is life. Peña has otherwise looked the part, complete with a strong arm and no issues as of yet playing on either side of the bag, depending on the Astros’ positioning.

While Peña should remain an asset with the glove, his bat work could be prone to fluctuation. He’s added strength over the years, and that’s helped him tag several pitches on the inner half. So far, more than half his batted balls have registered an exit velocity of 95 mph or better, including his aforementioned home run. Power has never been considered a strength of his game, yet he did launch a career-high 10 home runs last season, and the ball does not have to clear the fence in order for his added muscle to pay off.

The catch with Peña is that he’s shown an ultra-aggressive approach that could end up working against him as teams gain data on his tendencies. Seven of his first 25 plate appearances have ended on the first pitch, and another seven have ended on the second. He’s shown an obvious appetite for expanding his zone up on fastballs, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if pitchers start spamming him with sliders away to exploit his pull-happy ways. (To wit, Shohei Ohtani threw Peña sliders on five of the six pitches across two plate appearances; Peña swung-and-missed on all of them.)

Of course, it’s understandable if Peña experiences some growing pains over the coming weeks and months. The pandemic prevented him from playing in Double-A, and his injury limited him to just 30 Triple-A games. His path hasn’t been the standard slow-and-steady one most prospects take to The Show.

Still, it’s clear why the Astros are high on Peña: his defense and ability to impact the baseball give him a high floor. How he responds to the league’s attempts to exploit his perceived weaknesses will ultimately dictate if the Astros’ faith in him being the shortstop of the current – and not just the shortstop of the future – is rewarded.

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