On Tuesday night, in just his second game since being promoted to the big leagues, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa launched the first home run of his major-league career. Houston fans certainly hope that it won’t be the last, as the first overall pick from the 2012 draft is now being looked at as a potential franchise cornerstone — an offensive middle infielder who impacts the ball on both sides of the game.
It is not too difficult to look at the 6-foot-4 Correa and envision the heir to Troy Tulowitzki’s throne. At the time of his call-up, Correa was the consensus best prospect in baseball, thanks mostly to his destruction of Double-A and a solid performance in Triple-A (despite the fact that he won’t turn 21 until September). While Correa had certainly performed well climbing the minor-league ladder the past few years, he really broke out at the beginning of this season by developing additional power.
In Double-A, 24 of his 45 hits went for extra bases, which is the kind of mark you expect from aging players who can’t hit singles because they pull all their groundballs right into the shift. When you see that kind of power from a middle infielder, especially one who isn’t yet of drinking age, the sky really seems to be the limit.
But as we discussed in this space a week ago, projecting future power output is a tricky business. While a player’s power production is perhaps the most important variable in determining offensive production, it’s also the most difficult to forecast. Especially for tall, skinny athletes, power can develop later in a player’s career, well after his other tools have gotten him to the big leagues.
But it doesn’t always develop quickly, and sometimes it doesn’t develop at all. In talking with some people in the game about Correa, I was struck by how similar the descriptions sounded to conversations we had a few years back about another can’t-miss slugging shortstop: Xander Bogaerts. Like Correa, Bogaerts rocketed through the minors, getting to the big leagues as a 20-year-old, and was considered the cream of the prospect crop at the time. And while he’s showing real improvement this year on both sides of the ball, we’re coming up on 1,000 at-bats in Bogaerts’ big league career and he still has a grand total of just 15 home runs.
To this point, just 29% of Bogaerts’ career hits have gone for extra bases. While he’s raised his average this season to .297, he’s slugging just .401, and his improvements have come entirely from reducing his strikeout totals. Rather than morphing into more of the slugging shortstop he was projected as, Bogaerts’ offensive profile now looks more like that of a traditional middle infielder. At just 22, it’s still far too early to declare that he’s a finished product, and Bogearts still has plenty of career left ahead of him, but he is a reminder that we can’t just assume every player is going to add power in a nice linear fashion as he gets older.
Of course, there are exceptions to everything, and even if Bogaerts never develops much power, that won’t mean much for our expectations of Correa’s future offensive profile. However, if you look at the recent history of the big slugging shortstop, you might be surprised at just how few of them have turned into the Tulowitzki arch-type.
Before Bogaerts, the prospect who fit this mold perfectly was Manny Machado. He got to the big leagues at 19, and was one of the game’s best players at age 20. But while knee injuries have likely slowed his development, Machado is still mostly the same hitter he was a couple of years ago; he hasn’t yet made the leap into being an offensive force. Also still just 22, his power may still be to come, but it hasn’t really grown much as a big leaguer to date.
Before Machado, this role was filled by Starlin Castro. Castro isn’t as big as Correa, Bogaerts or Machado, and he wasn’t ever expected to turn into quite the same kind of home-run threat. But like the others, he profiled as an offensive shortstop who hit his way to the big leagues at age 20, and held his own against much older competition when he got there. And then he’s mostly just stagnated. The 2014 season offered some hope that perhaps Castro was taking a step forward, but he’s regressed this year as his power has dried up once again; only 10 of his 60 hits this year have been of the extra-base variety. Despite being projected as an elite young shortstop prospect, Castro has developed into an average player, and might be in the midst of playing himself out of Chicago.
Before Castro, there was Gordon Beckham. Since he went to college, his timeline was slightly different, but he was taken as the eighth overall selection in the 2008 draft as a bat-first shortstop, then torched the minor leagues to start 2009 before getting quickly summoned to take over as the White Sox third baseman (because that was the current big league opening). He hit .270/.347/.460 as a 22-year-old rookie, but it might go down as the peak of his career; he’s hit just .241/.300/.361 since then, and is now seen as mostly a utility player.
Tulo certainly remains a prime example of the value this type of player can have, and Hanley Ramirez had a very good run as a bat-first shortstop as well, but most of their peers who offered similar potential — Stephen Drew, Joel Guzman, B.J. Upton and Wilson Betemit were all top 10 prospects as offensive-minded shortstops, per Baseball America’s rankings — never turned into what they were expected to be.
Twenty years ago, five of these types of prospects — Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and Chipper Jones — turned out exceptionally well, redefining the shortstop position (or in Jones’ case, becoming an all-time great third baseman) and raising expectations for what a middle infielder with power could do in the big leagues. But those were the halcyon days before PED testing, and in the wake of more stringent drug policies in Major League Baseball, shortstops have mostly gone back to hitting like shortstops.
Perhaps Correa will buck the recent trend, hitting for as much power as is being projected upon him, and taking the reins from an aging Tulowitzki as the game’s next great shortstop. And perhaps Bogaerts and Machado will find their power strokes as well. In a few years, those three might be looked at the way we look at Rodriguez, Garciaparra and Jeter today. But it’s worth remembering that projecting future power output is a difficult task, and while Correa looks like an excellent prospect, the recent track record of excellent shortstop prospects is kind of terrible.
There’s a reason why an aging, injury-prone Tulowitzki is still such a hot trade chip in baseball; he’s almost the only guy currently playing the position who possesses real power. Correa might be the next Tulowitzki, but to get there, he’s going to have to fare a lot better than all the other guys who were supposed to be that too.