For now, most Astros fans are absorbing the fact that SS Carlos Correa won’t be in the Astros gear for the start of the 2022 season. While that possibility has been the biggest off-season talking point for Houston, its already happening doesn’t lessen the shock. Maybe in the coming days and weeks we’ll get to know the full details of what happened in the past week or so, especially when it looked like there might have been a chance of a reunion. For now, the Astros and their fans will be looking at what they lost, Platinum Glove winner and former Best Rookie winner, with an above-average racket and an overall successful post-season experience.
However, the biggest loss with the end of the Korea era will not come from various statistical/analytical measures. Perhaps the intangibles that Correa brings to the team are just as important to this team. In particular, the field leadership and locker rooms that came to define the later stages of his tenure as Astro. Very rarely, especially in the 2021 season, will there be any kind of team conference where Correa has not been a leading figure, offering his input and advice. How often, especially in the post-season, will a team rally behind any major defense or offensive play they have given the team, usually with a successful end result?
In particular, Correa did what another astro could not: bask in the role the world has identified as a baseball villain in the wake of the discovery of signal theft. From his 2020 interview when Correa called out some of those who were more outspoken about the Astros’ actions in 2017 and 2018, to how he has tackled the multiple questions presented to him and the team since 2020, Correa has been the most candid and dangerous. Accept the heel position. Not since the Detroit “Bad Boys” or even the nWo of professional wrestling have heels been so successful. If anything, it seems that Correa is nurturing the negative energy he has generated into the painting to achieve great results.
Correa played the role of team shield and emotional leader. When Korea played well, the team played well. When he didn’t, the team suffered accordingly. While it would be an oversimplification to say that Korea’s struggles in the world championships foreshadowed the team’s fate, it was the team’s measure. Now this is gone. The Astros aren’t bereft of talent, and even if Peña/Story/Played – currently – doesn’t appear in that streak – yet – but – on opening day – doesn’t quite provide the bat and gauntlet from Korea, the team is still in the midst of a playoff chase, even if He has not been the favorite in the world championships in recent years.
However, there is something to be said about that intangible leadership, and with Correa gone, who is taking charge? Altuve will go down as the GOAT of the Astros, and while his game in the past two seasons has fluctuated between All-Star and meh, he can still hit major success/play when needed (just ask the Yankees and Red Sox). However, Altuve was never a loud/outspoken character who would take charge in the locker room. While he gets the most barbs from opposing fans, Altuve, unlike Correa, doesn’t explicitly try to fight it or embrace it. How will this affect him in 2022? While the intensity of the negativity may subside a bit for the Astros, expect the Altuve to experience the biggest and most visible reaction. Not that Altuve needed anyone to defend him, but getting Correa openly against critics for him did a lot to help the locker room.
If not the Tuff, who will rise to replace Korea? Bergman is enjoying the game, but hasn’t been on the field like the last two seasons due to injury. Also, while he shows the ability to take on a more vocal role, he didn’t do it like Korea. With Correa gone, has Bergman become that outspoken leader who can rally the team with his game and actions?
Maldonado “Machete” may become the man. While his racket is a responsibility like anything else, his defensive skills and sheet management are key to this team’s success. Also, he was instrumental in helping the team at times through tough stretches and facing critics. It was Maldonado who inspired Altuve and the team to get the final word against the Yankees on the entire jersey issue. Could Mashi do it for the team instead of Korea?
Sometimes a lot of intangible leadership can be done. Baseball, like any other sport, is an objective business. Either you score more runs or you don’t. You win or you don’t. However, there is a place for emotions, challenges and the rallying of fellow strugglers to overcome. This is not a new concept for the team (see Carlos Beltran, for better or worse). When the team reported to Spring Training last week, spirits among the players soared when it looked like Korea might return. No doubt it wasn’t a huge disappointment, but it wouldn’t stop the Astros from playing. However, it could hurt the team looking to recover from the loss of WS, which is no easy feat.
However, with Correa moving to different stadiums, losing his leadership may be the hardest thing for the team to replace him. Pena, or someone who might develop as a suitable replacement for the team, may mitigate a potential drop in production. However, who is rising to replace Correa as captain? This will be something to watch as the 2022 season unfolds. There is no shortage of candidates, but if the team is to overcome near-failure from 2021 and complete the job in 2022, this is an area the Astros players must address.