SS Peña resolved to forge own path, 'play my game'

No. 4 prospect bounced back from injury, hit .297 with 10 HRs in 2021

March 16th, 2022

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When it comes to big shoes to fill, Carlos Correa left behind an Astros legacy that was much larger than his size 13s. A former No. 1 overall Draft pick in 2012 who became a cornerstone player on a team that won three American League pennants in five seasons -- including a World Series title in 2017 -- Correa is an Astros legend. And he’s a free agent.

Rumors continue to swirl about where Correa will sign, and if he’ll somehow find his way back to the Astros, but with the regular season three weeks away, Astros manager Dusty Baker can only focus on the players who are in camp. The club’s future post-Correa starts with prospect Jeremy Peña.

“He’s the front-runner for the job,” Baker said Wednesday.

Peña considered Correa a mentor and soaked up as much as he could from him during their time together in Spring Training the last two years, but he’s eager to carve his own path.

“I never look it as, ‘I’m replacing Carlos Correa,’” he said. “Carlos Correa is a great ballplayer. He’s done great things in Houston, but I’m Jeremy Peña. I want to play my game. I don’t need to fill anyone else’s shoes.”

Peña, who is the Astros’ No. 4-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline but figures to rise when the new rankings are released, is the best defensive player in the system and is riding the momentum of a strong offensive finish to the season last year at Triple-A.

He injured his left wrist diving for a grounder in Spring Training last year and had surgery that cost him much of the season, but he returned to set a career high with 10 homers while hitting .297 in just 30 Triple-A games and claimed a spot on the 40-man roster.

“It was just a culmination of hard work,” Peña said. “We had a lot of great workouts during the rehab time. We had four months, and I tried to learn my body, tried to learn my swing and take that into the game.”

Baker was enamored with Peña from the first time he set eyes on him, calling him “Nino,” which means “Kid” in Spanish. Peña isn’t completely on board with that nickname since it belongs to Fernando Tatis Jr. of the Padres, so he prefers “La Tormenta” -- The Storm. That’s what his father, former big leaguer Geronimo Peña, used to call him.

“I guess I was a bad kid when I was little,” Peña joked.

The highest-drafted position player in University of Maine history, Peña went in the third round in 2018, when he was considered one of the best college defenders in his class. He has gotten stronger and provided more offense than expected since turning pro.

“I feel like once I started putting on strength, that’s when my game elevated a little bit,” he said. “I started towards the end of my college career and I just kept building off that.”

What sets Peña apart defensively at shortstop are his quick first step and plus range. He has solid arm strength, unloads the ball quickly and makes accurate throws. He also has soft hands and sound fundamentals and is capable of playing anywhere in the infield, if needed.

After looking feeble with wood bats in college summer leagues, Peña has gotten stronger and is hitting the ball much harder as a pro. He has also improved at controlling the strike zone and does a nice job of using the entire field, though he still needs to add more lift to his right-handed swing because he makes a lot of contact on the ground. Factor in his solid speed and base-stealing mentality, and he has the upside of a 20-20 player.

“When you’re dealing with young guys, you’ve got to have patience,” Baker said. “If you expected him to be in the Hall of Fame right away, it might work, but most of the time it doesn’t. We’ve got great instructors, and he has a great outlook on life and baseball. He’s a very mature young man, and he listens.”

Peña got the invaluable experience of being on Houston’s taxi squad throughout the playoffs last year, which ended with a Game 6 loss to the Braves in the World Series. He returned to his native Dominican Republic to play winter ball and make up for the at-bats he lost in the Minor League season, and he had only a few weeks off before reporting to West Palm Beach.

“It was good for me mentally because the rehab process was tough,” Peña said. “That’s the first time I really dealt with an injury like that. I was itching for baseball. The injury also pushed me to play winter ball.”

The Astros signed Niko Goodrum this week and added to the mix at shortstop with Peña and Aledmys Díaz, whose best role is as a utility player. It’s clear the starting job belongs to Peña, and, like it or not, so do the comparisons to Correa.

“I don’t really know much about the Correa situation,” he said. “Correa’s been great to me. He’s been a leader in this clubhouse; he’s worked with me since we’ve gotten to know each other. I would love to have the opportunity. I feel ready, and I think I can compete to help the team win.”