Astros’ Carlos Correa expecting big season out of himself

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Early Monday morning, Carlos Correa confronted the cruel realities of his new normal. Chefs aren’t in the Astros’ spring training complex to cater to every player’s specific needs.

“We didn’t have the guys that make me the great omelet with banana pancakes every single morning,” Correa said after Monday’s first full-squad workout, “so I had to eat whatever was in the hot box, which was scrambled eggs with potatoes.”

Correa took his plate and found no cafeteria. The team must now eat outdoors under tents and with acceptable social distance. Once Correa finished, he found his way to the minor league clubhouse — a building he probably hadn’t entered in this facility’s five-year existence. Position players are dressing there throughout camp. Pitchers reside in the major league clubhouse.

Correa came out in a long-sleeved shirt. His neon orange sleeves distinguished him from other teammates. He made infield practice appear effortless, flashing a smile and barking Spanish to bench coach Joe Espada. He pulled a few batting practice pitches down the left-field line. As morning morphed into afternoon, Correa gathered his belongings and concluded his first day.

“I’ve never been more excited to show up to spring training in my career than this year. I’m super excited to be here,” Correa said. “I’m happy that baseball is back. I feel something special in this clubhouse. The way everybody showed up today really told me a lot of how everybody put in the work to make sure they’re ready — ready to compete and ready to win another championship.”

At 26, Correa can speak with the sort of authority otherwise reserved for an elder. If any one man will be this team’s leader, it is Correa. His voice carries weight. His actions at shortstop can bail out the team in its tightest spot. His presence is paramount, if not mandatory, for the continuation of a clubhouse culture.

“Whenever a new guy shows up or a guy comes up from the minor leagues, we have to make sure that we teach them the ways and how we do things here and the atmosphere we’ve been able to build for almost five years now,” Correa said.

Consider Correa something of an architect for the Astros’ renaissance. His arrival in 2015 invigorated a club just learning how to win. His only All-Star appearance coincided with the franchise’s only World Series. And a possible departure could determine the franchise’s long-term future.

Correa did not want to acknowledge that Monday might have been his final first day at Astros spring training. A post-workout meeting with reporters made the task impossible.

Peppered with questions about his future — a subject he stoked with an eye-opening radio interview last month — Correa appeared prepared.

Other impending free agents have deflected the topic, offering empty platitudes for fans and avoiding other questions. Correa leaves nothing for interpretation. His candor is refreshing for a player of his status. On Monday, within 10 minutes, he proclaimed himself one of the two best shortstops eligible for free agency following this season. Then, without prompt, Correa revealed he could — and would — move to third base if the right situation arises.

“If it’s here, I’d love to stay here and play third base if that’s the case. That’s just a position I also enjoy,” Correa said. “I’m the one that has the option that can go shortstop, can go third base, can play defense at a high level and can produce power at the plate and can hit.”

Discussions with the Astros about a long-term contract extension are nonexistent, Correa said. Mutual interest still exists on both sides. Correa gave an opening day deadline to get a deal done.

“Talks are nowhere right now,” he said. “I leave that up to my agent and the organization. But right now, there’s no talks about it.

“If the Astros want to extend me, I would like to get it done before the season starts. Once the season starts, man, I feel so good, my body feels so great, that I feel like I’m going to have such a great season that once the season starts I don’t want to be involved or distracted with those conversations.”

Interest in Correa’s future piqued in January, when he told a team-sponsored radio show he would “love to be an Astro for life.” Two weeks later, the team agreed to pay him $11.5 million in 2021, avoiding a messy, awkward arbitration hearing.

The two parties have not communicated since then, Correa said Monday. Six weeks remain in spring training. Negotiations do not have to be instant. Justin Verlander’s two-year, $66 million deal was announced on the final day of Grapefruit League play in 2019.

Nothing Correa said Monday made those January comments disingenuous. He called Houston “my town” and reiterated his affinity for the Astros. He spoke of the aforementioned culture and how much pride he takes in imparting it to new players. Correa said he is not upset that talks are dormant.

“I’m not scared of free agency, but at the same time, as I’ve said before and shared before, I feel like this is the team I grew up in,” Correa said. “I feel like this is my team and I belong here. But they have to feel the same way. If they feel the same way and we can get something done, that would be great. If we don’t, I understand it’s how business works, and we’ll just have to move on. That’s how the business works.”

If Correa enters free agency after the season, it will be as a 27-year-old. Players who reach the open market at such a young age are few and far between. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado did it in 2019. Both received deals of 10 or more years. Alex Rodriguez was 25 in 2000 when the Texas Rangers signed him to a 10-year, $252 million deal.

Correa has an asking price. The Astros have their estimation of what he is worth. If history is any indication, any deal for Correa might shatter Jose Altuve’s franchise-record six-year, $151 million contract extension signed in 2018.

“I’ll probably be one of the youngest players going to free agency next year,” Correa said. “I feel like it will take the right deal to stay here. I’m not going to sell myself short, but at the same time, I know what I’m worth, and if the season happens, I am expecting to have a great and healthy season, which will help my case for free agency, being the youngest shortstop out there.”

Along with him might be the most decorated group of free agents at one position in recent memory. Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Javy Baez, Trevor Story and Marcus Semien are all eligible for free agency after the season. Correa is the youngest of the six. He and Seager have both won rookie of the year honors. Baez and Story have four All-Star appearances between them. Semien, playing second base for at least this season with the Toronto Blue Jays, finished third in MVP voting in 2019.

Lindor is a fellow Puerto Rican and one of Correa’s close friends. Correa said they are the two most attractive shortstops of the bunch. Lindor, who was traded to the New York Mets this winter, told reporters Monday he’s had no contract extension talks, either. Like Correa, Lindor said the words, “I’m not scared of free agency.”

“I’m the one, I feel like with Lindor, that can do both — offensively and defensively — at a high level,” Correa said. “I always have the option of going to third base if it’s needed (for a team).”

Correa has not played a major league inning at third base. Barring an injury to Alex Bregman or Aledmys Diaz, he won’t this year, either. Correa’s place on the 2021 Astros is up the middle, turning double plays and shouting encouragement to pitchers.

A consistent, injury-free season from Correa is mandatory for the team’s success. He hasn’t played more than 110 games in a 162-game season since 2016. He finished the 2020 regular season with a .709 OPS. If not for his many injuries and baffling inconsistency, there would be no debate on the top available shortstop in 2021.

“I feel really healthy. I feel really strong,” Correa said. “My swing feels great. I figured out some things last year that helped me in the playoffs that are going to translate this year. I’m super confident going into the season with the team that we have. I feel really good.”

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