A little more than a third of the way into the season, you can see how seriously the Houston Astros are taking themselves with the news that they’re calling up Carlos Correa in time to join the team on Monday.
Despite suffering a sweep in Toronto, the Astros still are in first place in the American League West, Correa is the best ready-now prospect in the land not already in the major leagues*, and they lack a good shortstop.
After already showing that last year’s leg injury was well behind him in spring training, Correa arrives already having delivered a 1.006 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A, with a .332/.404/.602 line that includes 10 homers and 18 steals in 19 attempts. As far as more happy stats, he was walking in better than 10 percent of his at-bats while striking out just 16 percent of the time. At 20, he’ll be the youngest player in the AL, having already demonstrated that he wasn’t overmatched against more advanced breaking stuff at Triple-A -- where he was almost seven years younger than the average player.
One fair question is whether Correa will immediately be a major improvement. Given the touts, it’s certainly expected. It wouldn’t take much to be better than Marwin Gonzalez at the plate, and he profiles as a better fit for major playing time than Jonathan Villar. As far as preseason projections go -- relying on Correa’s never having played higher than the High-A Cal League -- Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA suggested a modest .646 OPS, while ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS model forecast a .668. But even if that’s “all” the Astros get, there would be the benefit of putting Correa into a situation where he doesn’t have to carry the club so much as just help them win as he comes into his own.
The thing is, I don’t really believe that’s all there is right now. Call it a crazy wishcast, but extraordinary talent sets its own timetable, and Correa set his by playing as well as he has, in March and in the minors. This becomes just the most recent example of a team going young while also going for it, with examples like the Cubs this year, the Diamondbacks when they called up Paul Goldschmidt to solve their first-base problem en route to the 2011 postseason or the Braves bringing up Andruw Jones for the stretch run in 1996. It’s a thing.
Of course, the Astros don’t only lack a solid solution at shortstop. While regular third baseman Luis Valbuena has popped a dozen homers, he’s below the Mendoza line and is contributing just a .651 OPS while striking out at a career-high clip. He’s playing a decent third base, but with Correa up, his job security isn’t ultimately in his hands. Once Opening Day shortstop Jed Lowrie comes back from the DL when his thumb injury heals sometime around the All-Star break, the Astros can decide whether they’ll want to move the defensively dubious Lowrie -- he averages minus-9 Defensive Runs Saved per season at shortstop -- to third base where he’s better, or if they move Correa to the corner.
In the meantime, strap in for what should be the latest blast from the Astros. They’ve given us a league-leading 78 homers, and they’ve given us the nightly joy that comes with watching Jose Altuve and George Springer. Correa is just the latest reason to tune in and take off with Houston’s homegrown constellation of stars.
* Give Byron Buxton another month at Double-A or higher (.811 OPS so far), and that would be up for debate.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.