By now, most Astros fans are coming to grips with the fact that SS Carlos Correa will not be in Astros gear to start the 2022 season. While this possibility has been the biggest talking point for the off-season for Houston, that it has actually happened doesn’t lessen the shock. Perhaps in the days and weeks ahead, we will learn the full details about what went down in the past week or so, especially when it seemed that perhaps there was a chance for a reunion. For now, the Astros and their fans will look to what was lost, a Platinum Glove and former Rookie of the Year Winner, with an above-average bat and extensive, successful post-season experience.
Yet, the biggest loss with the end of the Correa era will come not from the various statistical/analytic measurables. Perhaps just as critical for this team will be the intangibles that Correa brought to the squad. In particular, the on-field and locker room leadership that came to define the later stages of his tenure as an Astro. Very rarely, especially in the 2021 season, would there be any sort of team conference that Correa was not a leading figure, offering his input and advise. How often, especially in the post-season, would the team rally behind any major defense or offensive play he provided to the squad, usually with a successful end result?
In particular, Correa did what no other Astro could: lean into the role assigned by the world as baseball villain in wake of the sign-stealing revelations. From the 2020 interview he gave when Correa called out some of those who were most vocal about the Astros’ actions in 2017 and 2018, to how he addressed the multiple questions presented to him and the team since 2020, Correa has been the most upfront and accepting of heel status. Not since the Detroit “Bad Boys” or even the nWo from pro wrestling has a sports heel been so successful. If anything, Correa seemed to feed off the negative energy he engendered at the plate to great results.
Correa played the role of team shield and emotional leader. When Correa played well, the team played well. When he didn’t, the squad suffered accordingly. While too simplistic to say that Correa’s struggles in the World Series foretold the doom of the team, he was the squad’s barometer. Now that is gone. The Astros are not bereft of talent, and even if Peña/Story/Played-currently-not-appearing-in-this-line-up-yet-but-will-by-Opening-Day do not provide quite the bat and glove of Correa, the team still figures to be in the thick of the playoff chase, even if not quite the World Series favorite of recent years.
However, there is something to be said for that intangible leadership, and with Correa gone, who takes the mantle? Altuve will go down as the GOAT of Astros, and while his game has fluctuated in the past couple of season between All-Star and meh, he can still bring the key hit/play when needed (Just ask the Yankees and Red Sox). Yet, Altuve has never been a vocal/out-spoken figure who will take charge in the locker room. While he gets the most vitriol from opposing fans, Altuve, unlike Correa, doesn’t openly try to fight it or embrace it. How will that impact him in 2022? While the intensity of the negativity may only slightly abate for the Astros, expect that Altuve will face the biggest and most pronounced reaction. Not that Altuve needs anyone to defend him, but having Correa openly fight back against the critics for him did much to help the locker room.
If not Altuve, then who will rise to take Correa’s place? Bregman has the game, but has not been on the field as much the past couple of seasons due to injury. Also, while showing the potential to take on a more vocal role, he has not done so like Correa. With Correa gone, does Bregman become that vocal leader who can rally the team with his play and actions?
Perhaps “Machete” Maldonado becomes the guy. While his bat is as much a liability as anything, his defensive skills and plate management are key to the success of this squad. Also, he has been instrumental in helping the team at times through rough stretches and facing off against critics. It was Maldonado who inspired Altuve and the team to get the last word against the Yankees with the whole jersey issue. Could Machete do it for the team in lieu of Correa?
Sometimes, too much can be made of intangible leadership. Baseball, like any other sport, is an objective business. You either score more runs or you don’t. You win, or you don’t. Yet, there is a place for emotions, facing challenges, and rallying struggling teammates to overcome. This is not a new concept for the team (see Carlos Beltran, for better or worse). When the team reported to Spring Training this past week, sprits among the players were lifted when it seemed like Correa could come back. That he didn’t must be a significant disappointment, but it won’t stop the Astros from playing. Still, it may hurt a team looking to bounce back from a WS loss, which is not an easy feat.
However, with Correa moving on to different fields, the loss of his leadership may be the hardest thing for the squad to replace. Peña, or whoever may evolve as a suitable replacement for the team, may mitigate the likely drop-off in production. Yet, who rises to take Correa’s place as the team leader? That will be something to watch for as the 2022 season evolves. There are no shortage of candidates, but if the team is to overcome the near-miss from 2021 and complete the job in 2022, then that is an area that the Astros players must address.