No fan of any Major League Baseball team ever likes having the discussion about whether a franchise cornerstone will potentially be leaving the team in free agency.
But it’s inevitable. Astros fans already saw one leave last offseason when George Springer signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, and are currently faced with the possibility of Carlos Correa’s departure following the 2021 season.
So with the regular season coming down the home stretch, this week’s Skeeters Spotlight focuses on the player that many have tabbed to take over at shortstop should Correa depart the Bayou City this offseason – Jeremy Pena.
Pena was a third-round pick by the Astros in the 2018 MLB Draft out of the University of Maine. He hit .305 with an .810 OPS in three seasons with the Black Bears, but the primary draw for the 6-foot shortstop was his glovework – several pre-draft scouting reports graded him as one of the top college defenders in the draft after he had a .953 fielding percentage in three seasons with the Black Bears.
Pena is currently rated as the Astros’ No. 4 overall prospect, while Baseball Prospectus had him as the 82nd-ranked prospect in all of baseball entering the 2021 season, though that was before he injured his wrist diving for a ground ball in Spring Training.
He had to have wrist surgery prior to the season following the injury at the Astros’ alternate site, but was activated off the Injured List and made his Sugar Land debut last week.
To understand Pena’s perceived value first requires understanding how a prospect’s skills are evaluated. Most teams use a grade scale from 20-80, with 20 being well below average and 80 being elite. Among the skills evaluated are in-game power, arm strength, speed and so forth.
So what’s the outlook?
Pena was viewed as a glove-first player coming out of college, and that has largely not changed. He quickly became one of the premier defenders in the Astros’ system upon his drafting. Just from the video I have seen of Pena and watching him in person at Spring Training in 2019, he certainly passes the eye test. He has a quick release when he gets the ball, which makes up for a lack of top-end arm strength.
And seeing that he has a .959 fielding percentage since the start of 2019, the numbers test also checks out. Entering the 2021 season, Pena had a 55-grade arm and 60-grade fielding according to scouts – both of which check out as significantly above average. So the defensive data certainly validates the eye test to this point.
However, he also hit .303 with an .825 OPS during the 2019 season and has begun to add weight to his 6-foot frame, bringing with it the hope that can develop a solid bat to complement the defense. And there is still plenty of room for him to grow.
The 23-year-old product of the Dominican Republic has added on some serious muscle since being drafted, being listed at 202 pounds this season compared to 180 pounds his final season at Maine, and is a legitimate prospect with the chance to be a solid regular on a contending team.
Prediction: Pena almost definitely sees a Major League ballpark sometime in 2022 – though the question of how is extremely tricky, and it all depends on how the Correa situation pans out in the offseason. If the Astros re-sign their franchise cornerstone, Pena’s best path to the majors likely lies as a utility infielder with ability to play multiple positions. If they don’t, we could very well be witnessing the origin story of the Astros’ next starting shortstop in our own backyard.