Correa's arrival just start of something big
CHICAGO -- A.J. Hinch has his catchphrases, and a look at the American League West standings suggest they've been working.
The Astros manager tells his players he doesn't believe in expectations nor in limitations, that the goal is always to "be your best today.'' He has preached "one game at a time,'' as he's worked to raise the standard for a franchise coming off seven consecutive losing seasons.
But with apologies to the concept, not all days in a 26-week season are created equal. And for the Astros, Monday was one of the biggest in many seasons, thanks to the convergence of Carlos Correa's arrival and a historic Draft in which Houston held two of the first five picks.
Correa, the Puerto Rican shortstop, went No. 1 overall in the 2012 MLB Draft, the first of four under general manager Jeff Luhnow and his scouts. He joins reigning AL batting champ Jose Altuve and center fielder George Springer to form the core of a long-term contender built through the Draft.
Correa had a quiet 1-for-4 night as White Sox ace Chris Sale mowed down the Astros on Monday, winning 3-1 in a game that was delayed by rain at the start and again in the third inning. But there was just something about how Correa carried himself.
"He looked the part in every facet,'' Hinch said afterward. "We're happy to have him. He makes us better. He fit in nicely.''
While Correa was going through his stop-and-start night at U.S. Cellular Field, the Astros continued to stockpile inventory in their system. Because they were unable to sign first overall pick Brady Aiken last year, they held the second pick in addition to the fifth pick. They used the two to select LSU shortstop Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker, a high school outfielder who is the brother of Houston rookie Preston Tucker.
But here's the fun part. With the 37th overall pick -- a Competitive Balance Draft pick acquired in a trade with the Marlins -- the Astros selected outfielder Daz Cameron, the son of former Major League outfielder Mike Cameron. He had been considered a top 10 pick, but like Lance McCullers in 2012, he slid because of signability questions. Then Houston added Cal-State Fullerton ace Thomas Eshelman with its second-rounder, 46th overall.
Like Theo Epstein with the Cubs, Luhnow has used the Draft to rebuild the Astros from the ground floor up. He's been creative and taken chances, beginning with Correa in the 2012 Draft.
Stanford's Mark Appel was considered the most likely player to be picked No. 1 in 2012, but signing him would have required Houston to use the full slot allotment. (Appel went to the Astros No. 1 the following year.) By working out a deal to sign Correa for less, Houston was able to pay McCullers and high school third baseman Rio Ruiz -- since dealt to Atlanta in the Evan Gattis trade -- above slot price.
It's one of the ways that owner Jim Crane and Luhnow have accumulated more than their share of talent in their four years together. Plus, it didn't hurt the Astros that the previous regime left them talented players like Altuve and Springer in the pipeline.
"We're continuing to try to move this organization forward,'' Hinch said. "We're happy with what we're doing, proud of the group we have. … The organization is proud of the story so far. Yet we're not satisfied that this is the only story we're going to become, and Carlos will be a part of that.''
Correa floated into the visitors' clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field on Monday, fresh from his flight from Fresno, Calif. He looked sharp in his white straw fedora, even if he wasn't able to rest on the flight.
Correa had only gotten a few hours' sleep Sunday night after he was told he was coming to the Major Leagues and planned to nap on the plane. Instead, he shared his excitement with his seatmates.
"Both of the guys next to me were reading the newspaper,'' Correa said. "They were reading [an article about me]. They look at me like, 'Are you this guy?' I'm like, 'Yes.' We started talking. That hit me really hard.''
Understand, as difficult as it is for any baseball player to reach the Major Leagues, there is a constant churn to 25-man rosters. Players come and go all the time, usually with minimal attention. But Correa isn't just another guy, and it shows.
At 20, the Astros' newest shortstop is the youngest player in the Major Leagues, and there's nothing surprising about him being here. Correa was the first player picked in the 2012 MLB Draft, and he has touched all the bases in his rapid ascent through Houston's booming farm system.
"He's one of the most polished 20-year-olds you've ever been around,'' Hinch said. "To have him up here at this age, to [be] the youngest Major Leaguer, he's answered every question along the way to earn the promotion. We put any challenge in front of him, he's responded.''
Correa stands 6-foot-4 and is listed at 210 pounds, but he looks like he should be wearing No. 1, the uniform he was given. The Astros' No. 1-ranked prospect has split this season between Triple-A Fresno and Double-A Corpus Christi, hitting .335 with 10 home runs, 18 stolen bases and a 1.007 OPS in 53 games.
It took Correa only two at-bats to get his first hit -- a fourth-inning infield single on a 96-mph fastball from Sale. He was initially called out by first-base umpire Larry Vanover, but Hinch appealed, and replays showed that the one-hop throw from shortstop Alexei Ramirez arrived a tick after Correa, stopping a consecutive scoreless innings streak by Sale that was about to reach 23.
"I knew I was safe,'' said Correa, who flew down the line on a ball Ramirez backhanded. "I knew I beat the throw.''
There are easier ways to start your Major League career than facing Sale, who struck out 14 (including every Houston player except Correa and Springer), but Correa wasn't complaining. No way.
So what if he faced Sale in his debut and will be challenged by Carlos Rodon, the third overall pick in last year's Draft, and Felix Hernandez two of the next three days?
Correa was riding high on adrenaline Monday night, and the first-place Astros were almost as excited as their new man, the one they took only 40 picks before hard-throwing right-hander McCullers, who took the mound against the White Sox.
McCullers made his fifth Major League start, and while he wasn't Sale, he was nasty in his own right. He worked seven innings, allowed four hits (including the go-ahead home run to Avisail Garcia) with no walks and seven strikeouts.
While this was Houston's fifth loss in a row, no was down in the clubhouse.
"There's genuine excitement,'' Hinch said. "I think part of that is because we watched Carlos in Spring Training carry himself in a mature way, work his tail off. He does everything right. He gains a lot of respect from his teammates by doing that. From a psychological standpoint, this is a nice boost for us, the type of player we're welcoming to our team.''
Imagine the lift Correa will give the Astros if he is as much of a quick study as Kris Bryant has been for the Cubs. He sure looked it in the eighth inning, when he glided from his position to field an Adam Eaton grounder that seemed headed into center field for a single. Correa's throw easily beat the speedy Eaton down the line.
Hinch practically shrugged his shoulders when it was mentioned after the game.
"He made that play in the spring for us," Hinch said. "Guys have been telling us he's been making them. He can make any play; there's nothing he can't do on a baseball field. He has to mature, learn and grow like any 20-year-old getting to the big leagues. But, no, that play doesn't surprise me. His tempo and his pace of play today was like he'd been here for the entire season. He's going to fit in well."
So, too, could Bregman and the younger Tucker when the time is right. Maybe even the young Cameron, too. With these Astros, never say never.