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In letting Carlos Correa walk, the Astros bet big on Jeremy Peña. It’s paid off and then some

After letting a homegrown superstar leave in free agency, it seems the Astros knew they had another ready to step in. Or they just got really lucky.

Houston Astros v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

Entering the 2022 season, it’s unknown how the Astros brass exactly viewed Jeremy Peña.

Long-term, he projected to at least be a solid regular at shortstop, if not an above-average everyday player. But given his lack of experience in the upper minors — he skipped Double-A Corpus Christi after the canceled 2020 minor-league season and accrued 133 plate appearances at Triple-A Sugar Land in 2021 — the former third-round pick was facing a steep learning curve in 2022 at the big-league level.

It did not help that he would be replacing Carlos Correa, the greatest shortstop in Astros history.

The consensus among projection systems was that the 24-year-old Peña would be a relatively adequate contributor offensively while providing quality defense at short.

Considering the expanded playoffs for the 2022 campaign, perhaps the Astros believed they could comfortably secure a spot in the postseason without Correa’s MVP-like production, while slashing payroll in the process. Merely decent output from the shortstop position would be sufficient, as the rest of the roster was still formidable overall.

Or, perhaps the 2021 American League Champions knew they were replacing a homegrown superstar with another.

A front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year, Peña has been one of baseball’s best players in 2022. He’s produced better than expected at the plate and owns an excellent 131 wRC+ entering Tuesday. Defensively, he’s among the league leaders in DRS, a metric that ranked Correa No. 1 among all fielders in 2021.

Through 61 games, Peña has started all but eight for the 37-24 Astros, who are 4-4 when Peña’s on the bench. He’s quickly become an indispensable player for the club and is a bona fide stalwart at shortstop.

As for the man he replaced, Correa is still playing at a high level in Minnesota. He suffered a hand injury in early May after getting hit by a pitch and has appeared in 14 fewer games than Peña as a result, but the former No. 1 overall pick remains an impact player at the plate (143 wRC+) and in the field (2 DRS).

It’s not fair to compare a rookie in Peña to a player such as Correa, who is not only a multi-time All-Star, but one of this generation’s best postseason performers (130 wRC+ in 334 career plate appearances). The reality is that the comparisons will likely persist, because it’s difficult not to link the two. Correa is the Astros’ best, most accomplished shortstop in the club’s history, became the vocal leader of the locker room late in his tenure and was beloved by the fan base. His high-profile exit, boosted by the Astros’ ostensible disinterest in a reunion, created a difficult situation for Peña to inherit.

Fortunately for the Astros, their rookie extraordinaire has taken up the mantle in spectacular fashion. Limited playing time in the minors did not prevent Peña from becoming the Astros’ top prospect, and it seems the weight of replacing a franchise player won’t deter him from becoming one himself.