For some, 2016 Spring Training marks the start of a brand new Major League Baseball season. For others, this time of year marks the height of the presidential primary elections. While many pontificate over who is best suited to lead the country, The Sports Fan Journal fam decided to take a look at which player, manager, or front office member is the best candidate to lead their team to the top of the baseball mountain.
In a time where the baseball prodigies are reigning supreme over the game like none other before, there are some giants that loom larger than others. And despite the fact that this year’s Opening Day will be his first, that he was born the same year as NAFTA, the same year Bill Clinton gave his first State of the Union Address and the same year a predecessor of Space City greatness, Jeff Bagwell, won the National League MVP — the newly minted 21-year-old Carlos Correa is a beacon of change for the Astros unlike any player before him.
Much has changed since 1994, and even in the immediate years past in Houston. The Astros went on to make their first World Series in 2005, subsequently changed leagues and have drawn themselves back up from the ashes of one of the most severe tailspins in Major League history. During their final seasons as a National League ball club, as well as their first in the American League, the Astros writhed through a three-year spin of 100-loss seasons, performing to a .333 winning percentage from 2011-2013.
It was a disastrous turn that saw many of the franchise’s former cornerstones such as Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence, Roy Oswalt and Carlos Lee all leave town, and be replaced by developmental talents that certainly took their lumps along the way to learning the Major League ropes.
Some of these figures that arrived during this time span have gone on to lead the charge in the inevitable revival of the Astros, such as Jose Altuve, Jason Castro and the winner of the 2015 AL Cy Young Award, Dallas Keuchel. Others like J.D. Martinez and Mark Melancon departed during the resurrection, destined to find All-Star status in other uniforms. Yet despite all of the comings and goings of the early decade in Houston, it was the outcome of the franchise’s first ever 100 loss season that would lay the first tracks toward finding the player that would be best suited to lead them out of the depths of cellar-dwelling despair.
Correa was a scrawny 17-year-old that was a surprise selection when the Astros called his name first overall in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. He’s actually seen as the value selection in comparison to much more heralded Stanford pitcher Mark Appel, who the Astros would ironically still land the next year after he declined to sign in Pittsburgh after being taken with the eighth overall pick.
Since that time, Correa has gone on a Frank Castle-like mission of assault on the sport, regardless of age, level of opponent or consequence of the game. He hit .312 as a minor leaguer at a range of ages where most players are still figuring their way through their senior years of high school or transitioning into college. Between 2014-15, he strapped a rocket on his back from the High A level through to Triple A, hitting .330 total over the time span, while crushing 37 doubles, 16 home runs and stealing 38 bases.
This all-around show was all that the Astros needed to see, and they made the decision to bring their then 20-year-old wunderkind to The Show in June 2015, the heat of the club’s first competitive push in nearly five years. He went directly into the heart of the fray and instantly became one of the most impactful players in all of the game. He connected for 20 hits in his first 15 games, became the second youngest player to steal three bases in a single game within his first 10 MLB contests, and had 14 extra base hits in his first 20 games overall. All of this was good enough to win him Rookie of the Month in his June debut, but he was just getting started.
Moving into his second month on the job, he had become the first player since 1914 to have at least five games of at least three hits and include a home run within his first 25 games. Afterward, he was the first shortstop in 100 years to hit at least nine long balls in just over a month of his debut. Overall, he hit more home runs in his first 50 games than any other player in history. With all of these firsts, perhaps no player in the game wears a more appropriate digit across his back than Correa does.
But what is most exciting perhaps is the fact that he literally continued to mature on what seemed to be a daily basis. In the second half of the season, he increased his batting average, on-base percentage and runs batted in figure on a monthly basis. He capped the season by nearly single-handedly taking down the eventual champion Royals, as he connected for a pair of home runs in Game 4 of the ALDS, a series in which he hit .350 in.
All in all, it was one of the most substantial debuts of the past 20 years. Despite not playing the first two months of the season, Correa finished with 198 total bases, while topping 20 home runs, 20 doubles and scoring over 50 runs while driving in 68. He was an easy call for Rookie of the Year in a season where it should have been a competitive honor. He’s become the first Astro to win the award since the aforementioned Bagwell did in ’91.
Bagwell, of course, went on to win his league’s top honor three years later, becoming the only Astro to ever win either award. At his current pace, it should shock no one if Correa follows in his footsteps in acquiring both pieces of hardware for himself. Perhaps the real question should be if it will even take that long for Correa to complete the ROY/MVP double play.
Besides the Houston MVP and birth of Correa, another thing that happened in 1994 ironically was the debut of Alex Rodriguez, who reached shortstop in Seattle at the age of 18 after being the top pick just a year earlier. Now, in what has become the summer of ‘94’s other most impressive debut, Correa is the rebirth of Rodriguez (albeit, hopefully, the second coming is much less controversial): a Puerto Rican, sweet swinging, position expectation-redefining, once-in-a-generation level talent.
Correa is on course to become the most important player on any team in the American League: one so substantial that he is the rare instant franchise player. He already is the leader of the forthcoming golden age of AL shortstops, which is set to include talents such as Xander Bogearts and Francisco Lindor, among others, in a display of a peer group at shortstop that has not been seen since the A-Rod/Jeter/Garciaparra era of the 90’s.
The only difference among this group of new blood at the spot is there will be no question about who is the best at any given point, because that is decided. And it only took 99 games of Correa to draw that line in the sand.
I’m a firm believer that the closest I’ve gotten to Heaven is Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. In the meantime til we cross paths again, I’ll pass along the gospel of the Field of Dreams here, Cheap.Seats.Please, I70 Baseball, and ‘Live From The Cheap Seats’.