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Is This the Last Ride of Carlos Correa and the Astros?

Correa has been the face of the Astros throughout their five-year ALCS run. But now, with the shortstop on the verge of free agency, his time in Houston may be nearing its end.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The definitive moment of a playoff series does not need to be the decisive one. When Hansel Robles elevated a 2-2 change-up to Carlos Correa in the seventh inning of Game 1 of the ALCS, there were still about five wild narrative kinks left to come. But Correa punched that pitch into the Crawford Boxes, and before embarking for first base, he turned to his dugout and pointed to his wrist.

“It’s my time!” he shouted, sending his teammates and some 40,000 Houston fans into a triumphant fit.

That home run, and Correa’s celebration, will go down as the defining image of the 2021 ALCS. But, as unlikely as this would’ve seemed a year ago, Game 6 of the World Series—and possibly Game 7—could be his last chance to top that in front of his home fans in Houston.

More than most franchises, the Astros are tied to historical eras by uniform. The tequila sunrise jerseys of the late 1970s and early 1980s bring to mind J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott, and the brushes with NLCS glory that those hard-throwing teams achieved. The dark blue and gold getups of the 1990s are synonymous with Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, though those two also lasted into the era of brick red and black, just long enough to win a pennant with Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens, and Brad Lidge.

Those golden years didn’t last long, though; by 2010, the Astros were a losing team headed further in the wrong direction, with a roster and farm system in such disarray that when new general manager Jeff Luhnow razed the organization and rebuilt it from scratch a few years later, it was as much a mercy killing as a coherent roster construction strategy.

That era in the wilderness brought about plenty of change for Houston, most notably a switch from the National to American League in 2013. But it also featured a change in uniforms—understated semi-throwbacks in white, blue, and orange—and a new star to go with them.

Correa isn’t the club’s longest-tenured player; José Altuve beat him to the organization by five years and to the majors by four. But when Correa was drafted no. 1 overall in 2012, Altuve was far from the MVP he would become. He was a novelty act, a tiny slap hitter who swung at everything because he could hit anything, and who ran like hell because nobody else in the lineup was capable of driving him in. Altuve made his first All-Star team in 2012 more or less by default; he was an average player that year, but the best a 107-loss group had to offer.

Even at 17, Correa looked like the future of the franchise. The first Puerto Rican player ever taken no. 1 overall, Correa was an imposing athlete, sporting a 6-foot-4 frame that looked certain to fill out into a power hitter’s physique. Maybe that big defensive-end-type frame would force him to slide over from shortstop to third base eventually, but Correa’s hands and arm screamed infielder. Correa was also smart, handsome, and—a bonus for a heavily Spanish-speaking market—bilingual. With his size and power at shortstop, and pretty right-handed power stroke, the comparisons came quickly: Jeter and/or A-Rod. Whether those expectations were reasonable or not is beside the point; this kid was built to go on billboards.

The Astros went through the embarrassment of their tank in order to build around players like Correa, and the team got good just as their franchise player was ready for the majors. After six straight losing seasons, the Astros started 18-7 in 2015. By early June that year, the 20-year-old Correa was in the majors, signifying that the Astros viewed themselves as serious contenders for the first time in 10 years.

In 99 games that season, Correa hit .279/.345/.512 with 22 home runs, 22 doubles, and 14 stolen bases. According to Baseball-Reference WAR, it was the second-best season by a 20-year-old shortstop in MLB history. (The best was A-Rod’s 1996, doing little to tamp down comparisons between the two.) By October, the Astros were in the ALDS, and a month after that, Correa beat Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor in a close election for AL Rookie of the Year.

Correa’s image immediately went up on team signage and marketing material. He hadn’t even started his second MLB season when he was anointed as a pitchman for H-E-B, an honor previously reserved for such revered athletes as Tim Duncan, J.J. Watt, and Biggio, who appeared in a TV commercial alongside Correa.

Of course, one ALDS and a set of supermarket commercials was just the beginning; the past five years have not only been the best five-year span in Astros history, they’ve surpassed anything about two-thirds of the franchises in the league have accomplished. Correa and the Astros have made the ALCS five straight years, won three pennants, and one title, with three 100-win seasons sprinkled in. Not only did Correa turn into an All-Star, so did 12 of his teammates over the past five years.

Because Correa entered the public sphere at such a young age, he’s grown up before our eyes: franchise player at 17, Rookie of the Year at 20, World Series hero at 23, veteran leader at 26. He was an actual child when Astros fans first learned his name, and nine years later, he’s an institution—a Bryce Harper or even LeBron James–in-miniature.

Correa’s worked hard to achieve that status, primarily by becoming one of the best shortstops in the league, stamping out the first third of a potential Hall-of-Fame career in his six and a half MLB seasons. But while many of his teammates have shied away from the celebrity panopticon—Altuve, George Springer, even to some extent Justin Verlander, one of the few superstar ballplayers in history who’s less famous than his spouse—Correa has put himself in public view throughout his career.

He scrambled over the dugout railing to wave Derek Fisher home for the decisive run in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, then three days later celebrated his first championship by proposing to his girlfriend in front of Ken Rosenthal and a national TV audience. And the Game 1 ALCS dinger was far from his first emphatic postseason home run: He walked the Yankees off in the ALCS in both 2017 and 2019, then took Nick Anderson deep to keep Houston alive in the 2020 ALCS, nearly sparking the second 3-0 comeback in MLB postseason history.

All of those hits came with a celebration that was nearly as memorable as the play itself; Correa isn’t shy about acting like he’s done something awesome when he’s earned it. And to his immense credit, he understands that a stare and a bat drop almost always looks cooler than a bat flip, even at the height of bat flip mania.

But no athlete can spend that much time in the limelight without looking foolish from time to time, or simply becoming overexposed to the point of inducing public fatigue. His bizarre 2019 vlog post-rib injury is just one example. And because he was the face of the Astros in 2017, he became one of the major faces of the sign-stealing scandal. In the aftermath, Correa—for all his media savvy when things were going well—never quite found the appropriate tone when the time came to endure public criticism. The boos didn’t roll off him as easily when they came outside the bounds of kayfabe.

But those events merely confirm how central Correa has been to the story of the Astros over the past decade. He’s been in the middle of everything, on the diamond and in the headlines—until the moment he tests free agency.

A week before his towering ALCS home run, Correa went 2-for-3 with a walk against the White Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS, and the Minute Maid Park crowd serenaded him with chants of “Pay Correa.” This the Astros have declined to do, even as so many others in Correa’s position—including Alex Bregman and Lance McCullers Jr.—have inked long-term extensions.

Correa set an April 1 deadline for any deal, and the Astros sent along some offers—including one for six years and $120 million. But they topped out at five years and $125 million, a fraction of the 10-year, $341 contract Lindor had signed the day before. Correa said he and the Astros “were not close at all” around his deadline, and as a result, he will hit free agency after the World Series. Now, if the Astros want Correa to return they’ll have to match the best deal he can get on the free agent market.

Correa was injured and/or ineffective for large portions of 2018 to 2020, which no doubt gave the Astros pause about signing him to a long extension. But in 2021, he had a seven-win season, according to Baseball Reference, as he hit .279/.366/.485. Now he can command far more than he would have seven months ago.

The Astros have let big free agents go before: Dallas Keuchel after 2018, Gerrit Cole after 2019, Springer after 2020. And Verlander, whom nobody remembers is still on the Astros because he’s made one start in the past two years, is also a pending free agent. Even in a sport without a salary cap, teams have to undergo a constant state of churn if they’re going to compete every single year. The Dodgers, who win at least 90 games a year without breaking a sweat, are about to undergo just such a renewal process.

But while it’s tempting to view the Astros’ five straight ALCS appearances as the work of one monolithic team, that illusion of stability isn’t really earned. Sure, no four-man infield in MLB history has played more postseason games than Bregman, Correa, Altuve, and Yuli Gurriel, but the only other major contributor left from the 2017 team (not including Marwin Gonzalez, who left and came back) is McCullers.

Correa is the perfect avatar for these Astros. He’s a homegrown star, a beloved figure in Houston, the embodiment of the offensive qualities that have kept the Astros on top for so long: making contact, keeping the line moving, but also hitting for enough power not just to advance baserunners but to drive them in. From the lows of the tanking project and the sign-stealing scandal to the highs of three World Series appearances, Correa has always been front and center. How can we even consider Correa without the Astros, or vice versa?

The Astros pride themselves on their cleverness, and a sufficiently clever team could certainly replace Correa’s production. There are many excellent free-agent shortstops on the market, and even more ways to shuffle players around to try to replace one player’s production in the aggregate. But with the original sitting right in front of them, why would they try to replace Correa—on the field, or on the billboards?