Sometimes baseball gives you that Hollywood ending. Such was the case Tuesday, March 22, in Kissimmee, Florida. Down five runs to the Atlanta Braves, Astros golden child Carlos Correa stepped to the plate with one man on in the bottom of the fifth. Correa looked at two beastly breaking balls on the inside corner from lefty Manny Bañuelos, then worked the count to full. Then Bañuelos tossed a change-up, this one still down, but catching far too much plate for the safety of the Braves’ lead. Correa pivoted his body, flicked his wrists, and sent a rocket shot to dead center. The Braves center fielder seemed to think he had a bead on it at first, but Correa’s shot kept carrying, and carrying, and carrying through the blue Florida skies, finally slamming into the netting, its descent had barely begun, a good twenty feet above the 410 sign in the deepest part of Osceola County Stadium.
Not only would that dinger help spark a rally that saw the Astros to victory that day, but Correa’s gargantuan round-tripper would also be the last home run by any Major League player in Osceola County Stadium history. The Astros’ lease with the stadium ends in 2017, with plans for a new facility in West Palm Beach next spring training. The next day’s game was a homerless affair, and as if God himself wanted to ensure that the Astros’ most gifted prospect since Cesar Cedeño would get to punctuate the team’s thirty-year tenure in Kissimmee, the stadium’s Saturday finale was rained out.
That reminds me of an old adage: out with the old, and in with the new. And it’s not just Correa.
Just how many more hits will we see with this phenom for the orange, white, and blue over the next decade-plus? At 21-years old, he already owns the Astros’ records for homers by a rookie (beating out Lance Berkman, who played in a more homer-happy era) and by a shortstop (besting the tragic Dickie Thon.) Scouts compare his hitting to prime Albert Pujols, and his all around game to that of “Alex Rodriguez with better makeup.” Fans, teammates, and insiders alike practically get misty-eyed while talking about his qualities as a human being off the field; indeed, the Cult of Carlos borders on idolatry, and given the results so far, justifiably so.
If Correa was the only person the Astros had to crow about, that would be one thing, but the franchise is in unprecedentedly tall cotton these days. To Correa’s left, there’s pesky hit machine and Gold Glover Jose Altuve. Give Correa and Altuve a decade or so together, and they will end up one of the great all-around double play combos in MLB history, alongside the likes of Trammell-Whitaker, Reese-Robinson, Rollins-Utley, and Concepcion-Morgan.
In right field, there’s agile, powerful George Springer, who some observers (over optimistically, in my opinion) are saying could have an even higher ceiling than Correa. What Correa was able to accomplish before he was 20 trumps Springer’s stats as a rookie at 24, but if Springer develops into even 80 percent of an Andre Dawson or Dale Murphy type of player, as well he could, that’s borderline MVP-caliber stuff.
Here’s another thing about today’s Astros: they now have solid contingency plans. After cutting ties with Chris Carter last year, Houston hoped that burly Jon Singleton would be able to step in at first base. Unfortunately, Singleton batted a Bacardi in Kissimmee: a .151 BA, along with 17 whiffs in 56 plate appearances.
Enter 25-year-old Tyler White, a thirty-third round draft pick who used his $1,000 signing bonus on a cell-phone upgrade and a pair of new running shoes. White has neither bonus baby status nor the tall frame of a prototypical first baseman—at five-foot-ten, 225, he’s built more like a catcher or an NFL fullback—and he hasn’t yet flashed twenty-home run power, but White sprays line drives and has a knack for getting on base. Over three years in the minors, White has racked up a .311 average, a .422 OBP and slugged a respectable .489, and in his first spring training in the bigs, he hit .348 and got on base at a .436 clip. When you are getting plus power at a position like shortstop, you don’t necessarily need your first-sacker smacking thirty dingers a year. Setting the table and avoiding double plays will do.
And then there is Plan C: Big AJ Reed, potentially a Jim Thome-type slugger. In stops in High-A and AA ball, the hulking lefty led the minor leagues in both homers (34) and RBI (127) last year while batting .340. He’ll start this season in AAA, but if he can maintain his stroke after his call up, he could send White back across the diamond to third, alongside Luis Valbuena (soon to be a free agent) and utility man Marwin Gonzalez, all of whom seem likely to soon face competition from prospect Colin Moran and/or Adam Bregman, two of the club’s top infield prospects.
One of the many things that bugged me about Drayton McLane’s Astros was his failure to grasp that in the vast acreage that is Minute Maid Park’s center field, an elite defensive center fielder was absolutely essential to safeguarding the team’s ERA. McLane and the brain trust seemed to think you could put anybody out there—Biggio? Sure, why not?—and that it was merely a coincidence that the team enjoyed its greatest success when you had sure-handed burners like Willy Taveras and Carlos Beltran out there.
Jim Crane, Jeff Luhnow, and AJ Hinch grasp that; hence last year’s acquisition of Carlos Gomez, whose bat may not be what it was a couple of years ago, but whose stellar outfield play is key to the mental well-being of the pitching staff and the team as a whole.
And in left, there’s fan favorite Colby “Captain Caveman” Rasmus: cattle rancher and, though a Georgia native, one of God’s Texans. An encore of his 25-homer season would be tops.
The Astros reportedly tried and failed to acquire a little more pop behind the plate last month, but for now, light-hitting defensive whiz and pitcher whisperer Jason Castro remains the Astros backstop, with newly acquired 35-year-old Erik Kratz, a Crash Davis type, backing him up until planned reserve Max Stassi gets off the DL. Expect Luhnow to make a move to shore up this position before the trade deadline.
Until Evan Gattis heals up from his sports hernia, expect Preston Tucker to get the lion’s share of the DH at bats.
With the reigning Cy Young winner atop your rotation and no obvious weak links behind him, the Astros starting rotation figures to be as good or better as last year’s seventh-place ranking in AL ERA. Behind Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, there’s offseason acquisition Doug Fister: a return to his 2014 form (16-6, 2.48 ERA) would be huge. Mike Fiers’s career ERA is a respectable 3.61. Veteran Scott Feldman (or Fiers) seems likely headed to swingman duty on the return from the DL of number three starter Lance McCullers.
Should any of these hurlers falter, the farm system is brimming over with live arms; of Baseball America’s top eleven Astros prospects, five are pitchers: flame-throwers Francis Martes, David Paulino, Michael Feliz, Albert Abreu, and Joe Musgrove, whose laser-guided arm surrendered only eight walks in 100 minor-league innings last year. (Against 99 Ks.)
For the first time since the glory days of Octavio Dotel and the pre-Pujol-sized Brad Lidge, the Astros should have a devastating one-two punch of a setup man and closer punch in the pen. After the acquisition of new closer Ken “100 Mile” Giles, last year’s top fireman Luke Gregerson will slide into an eighth-inning role, hopefully putting an end to the sort of late-game bullpen meltdown that cost the Astros a chance at the World Series last year.
I’ve been an Astros fan now for 37 years. I’ve seen the Astros young, I’ve seen them talented, and there have been times when the farm system has been well-stocked with prospects. Until now, I’ve never seen the ‘Stros in possession of all three of those assets at the same time. (Not to mention the coolest uniforms since the early 1970s.) Hats off to Jeff Luhnow and Jim Crane for their scorched-earth rebuild of the franchise Drayton McLane absolutely destroyed in the late aughts.
Sitting there in Kissimmee, you couldn’t help but sigh, look back in the rearview, and marvel at the positive changes. Ten long years this franchise spent in the baseball wilderness. Carlos Lee and his bloated contract and paltry production. Miguel Tejada and his bloated contract and paltry production. The final decline and fall of beloved icons like Biggio, Bagwell, and Berkman. The forced move to the American League. Homegrown heroes Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte and their ‘roid soap opera. The whack-a-doodle managerial moves of Cecil Cooper and Brad Mills.
Worst of all, until Drayton McLane finally coughed the team up in 2011, there was no prayer for rescue on the horizon. Hope did not spring eternal each spring training, and for the better part of a decade, the Astros farm system was as barren as the Gobi Desert. Loving the Astros between 2005 and 2011 was to willfully engage in clinical depression.
With the Astros, they were objectively mediocre to terrible every year and objectively only getting worse and objectively again, you were powerless to change a damn thing. McLane continued to overpay for past-it veterans while running MLB’s most threadbare farm system. The sun was not gonna come up tomorrow, or maybe ever again. You’d think a guy in the grocery business would grasp the fundamental concept of chickens and eggs.
Yes, as he will tell you himself, McLane’s farm system did in part develop Altuve, Springer, and Castro, but what else did he leave Crane and Luhnow to work with? What about the other 22 spots on the roster? How many top-quality players did that farm system develop between the departure of general manager Gerry Hunsicker and the sale of the team besides Hunter Pence?
Enough of that bile. It’s in the past now. I’d rather think about that Carlos Correa shot arcing over the fence in the Florida sunshine, George Springer’s dingers and diving catches, Jose Altuve spraying base knocks all over the field, Dallas Keuchel dominating on the hill, and how there ain’t nothing but good times ahead, Astros fans.
Sports Illustrated seems willing to revise their once-mocked timetable for an Astros championship from 2017 to this year. Goodbye, Kissimmee. Goodbye, Drayton. Let’s play ball.