Jeremy Pena Out To Set Own Legacy As Astros Shortstop

Image credit: Jeremy Pena (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

ANAHEIM, Calif.—Dusty Baker knows more than most about replacing a franchise icon.

Baker was a young center fielder in his early 20’s when he made his first two Opening Day starts in the Braves outfield alongside Hank Aaron in 1973-74. Hailed as the heir apparent to Aaron as the one-time home run king neared the end of his career, Baker made his first Opening Day start in right field for the Braves in 1975—a spot occupied Aaron for the better part of two decades.

“Pressure is something is that you’re going to have to deal with in this game,” Baker said. “I mean, imagine Didi Gregorius taking over for Derek Jeter…. I was in the same position, supposed to be the next Hank Aaron in Atlanta. Or Bobby Bonds (was) the next Willie Mays. There’s always a next somebody.”

For the Astros, their next somebody is Jeremy Peña.

Peña, the No. 71 prospect on the BA Top 100, made his major league debut Thursday on Opening Day as the Astros starting shortstop, a position that had been occupied by Carlos Correa since 2015.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Correa lived up to what every franchise dreams of from a first overall selection. He became a middle-of-the-order cornerstone who hit 20 or more home runs in five of his seven seasons with the Astros, won a Gold Glove at shortstop while establishing himself as one of the game’s premier defenders at the position and, most importantly, led the franchise to three World Series, including its first World Series title.

Now, Correa is in Minnesota after signing with the Twins in free agency. In his place steps Peña, a 24-year-old rookie the Astros drafted in the third round out of Maine in 2018.

“I really don’t feel any pressure,” Peña said prior to his major league debut against the Angels. “I don’t really see it as I’m replacing Carlos Correa. I just see it as I’m playing shortstop for the Houston Astros, so I’m just going to go out and compete with the guys and have a good season.”

Peña, the son of former Cardinals second baseman Geronimo Peña, has been on a meteoric rise the last two years. Known as a slick defensive shortstop with a light bat when the Astros drafted him, Peña used the coronavirus shutdown to get significantly stronger and reported to instructional league in 2020 showcasing newfound power that sent him on a rapid upward trajectory. A preseason wrist injury kept him out until the final month of 2021, but he still hit .297 with 10 home runs in only 37 games, mostly at Triple-A Corpus Christi.  

Rather than sign a veteran shortstop in free agency to replace Correa, the Astros turned the position over the Peña. He didn’t take long to impress the Astros veterans.

“He actually reminds me a lot of Carlos when Carlos was kind of in his position,” said Astros catcher Jason Castro, who was on the team when Correa debuted in 2015. “Obviously a very toolsy, talented young shortstop. Physically he’s pretty impressive. He’s definitely talented and I think he has an extremely high ceiling. He’ll be someone that’s definitely fun to watch kind of grow into himself as he experiences regular major league play.”

That Peña has similarities to Correa isn’t a coincidence. Peña spent parts of three spring trainings working with Correa in Astros camp and intentionally picked up many of his habits.

“Carlos was good to me,” Peña said. “He was a mentor to me since the first day we met. He’s a mentor, a leader. I learned so much from him and I’m grateful I got to practice with him and share the same field (in) spring training. It was good.”

And the No. 1 thing Correa imparted on Peña?

“Just your focus in practice,” Peña said. “Because you’re going to focus in the game, but we kind of take practice for granted sometimes. He taught me to stay locked in at practice, have fun, stay locked in, do the little things right, and that’s going to make you grow as a baseball player.”

Now comes the hard part. Peña certainly won’t have to carry the load in an Astros lineup that includes Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Yuli Gurriel and Kyle Tucker, but he will be expected to perform at the level required for a team with World Series aspirations. Even if he isn’t expected to fully replace Correa’s production, any early struggles will only amplify the significance of Correa’s loss.

From the Astros perspective, making sure Peña is just the best version of himself will suffice.

“As long as you don’t put pressure on yourself and just remain yourself I don’t see (where it’s a problem),” said Baker, now in his third year as the Astros manager. “We’re not putting any pressure on him. We’re helping the young man and just letting him be Jeremy Peña.”

Peña does have someone to help lend him perspective: his father. Geronimo Peña ranked as the Cardinals No. 3 prospect entering the 1990 season—behind No. 1 Todd Zeile and No. 2 Ray Lankford—and was expected to succeed longtime fan favorite Jose Oquendo as the Cardinals everyday second baseman. Instead, Peña spent most of his seven seasons in the majors bouncing back and forth from Triple-A and primarily coming off the bench.

His father knows time in the majors is precious, and that nothing is guaranteed. With that knowledge, Peña sat in the Astros clubhouse hours before the opener joking with teammates in both English and Spanish and sitting in front of his locker with a relaxed demeanor and a smile on his face.

If succeeding Correa is causing him to feel any pressure, Peña showed no signs of it. He’s simply savoring the fact his lifelong dream of reaching the major leagues has been realized, and looking forward to getting his career underway.

“(My father’s) number one thing is just enjoy the ride,” Peña said. “It’s short, people have different careers, so whenever you get up here just enjoy every single moment. Have fun, work hard and leave it all out there. “

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