Correa on brink of superstard­om

- Ted Berg @OGTedBerg USA TODAY Sports KISSIMMEE, FLA .

In a batting cage on a back field at the Houston Astros spring training facility, Carlos Correa rocks back ever so slightly, lifts his arms as he strides forward, then whips his bat through the hitting zone with a smooth but furious uppercut and lashes ropes to the gaps. He looks equally polished taking infield practice, showing off the impressive baseball instincts that thrilled scouts even years before his big-league debut, shuffling confidentl­y and directly toward every grounder hit his way, then rifling the ball across the infield with easy arm strength.

Then, while jogging over to another field for more practice, he stops to sign autographs, hug children and pose for photos with babies. Only his body betrays his age: Correa is huge — 6-4 and 210 pounds without an inkling of baby fat — but still owns the lanky frame associated with late adolescenc­e, like an 11-month-old Great Dane already giant but not yet fully filled out.

Correa is 21 and already perhaps the best shortstop in baseball. He entered 2015 without a single game above Class A ball on his profession­al résumé, then played his way to the big leagues by early June and hit .279 with a .857 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 22 home runs in 99 regular-season games, helping power the Astros to a surprise wild-card berth. Houston beat the New York Yankees in the American League wild-card game, and afterward Correa drank his first beer.

“I learned a lot, man,” Correa told USA TODAY Sports when asked about his first big-league season, which earned him the AL Rookie of the Year Award. “The most important thing I learned was how to work hard but smart, don’t overdo anything or get carried away. Sometimes I used to work really hard, then be tired by game time. That’s one of the things I learned at the big-league level, especially because you have 20 more games than in the minor leagues. When you’re competing to try to make the playoffs, the grind is real. The pressure is on. So it’s a lot tougher. But it was a pretty special year overall.”

“Special” might be an understate­ment. Breaking into the majors at Correa’s age and producing like he did while playing the most difficult defensive position is exceptiona­lly rare. In major league history, only four shortstops have produced at least a .850 OPS in at least 250 at-bats while 21 or younger: Correa, Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, Hall of Famer Arky Vaughn and Alex Rodriguez.

“I don’t put limitation­s on him in terms of what’s possible,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “He has got a lot of talent. He has good makeup. He has tremendous drive. I think he can be as good as anyone expects.”

“For him to jump straight into the big leagues and do what he did is pretty impressive,” teammate Jason Castro said. “Obviously, there’ll be some adjustment­s, the league will start to adjust to him a little bit and try to exploit what little weaknesses he does have. But I think what makes him special is the way he responds to those adjustment­s from around the league.”

Castro and Hinch noted the on-field adjustment­s Correa will have to make in his second bigleague season.

But in a grander sense, it’s hard to imagine a 21-year-old seeming better adjusted to the superstard­om looming.

In the clubhouse, he maintains a loose, easy affability with his teammates but turns measured and profession­al when faced with a tape recorder. After the Kansas City Royals eliminated the Astros from the postseason — in an AL Division Series in which Correa hit .350 with a 1.081 OPS — he even made a series of TV appearance­s from the World Series.

“For me, it’s not only about baseball,” Correa said. “I want to be able to be a great baseball player, but an even better human being. I think if I want to impact society in a positive way, like Roberto Clemente did, I’ve got to do all that kind of stuff. I’ve got to show my face out there and get people to know me in order to be able to do great things for different foundation­s and for different people, especially the kids.”

Correa won’t turn 22 until September. Baseball fans have perhaps been spoiled in recent seasons by the success of young stars such as Mike Trout, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, but even Trout struggled in his first brief turn through the majors, and neither Machado nor Harper posted offensive numbers better than Correa’s rookie rates until last season. And none of those guys regularly plays the game’s most premium defensive position.

Correa’s first 99 games’ worth of big-league experience prove nothing, but they tease so much. He enters 2016 with a real chance of emerging as the game’s best allaround player, and everything at camp suggests he’s ready for it.

USA TODAY SPORTS ?? “I don’t put limitation­s on him in terms of what’s possible,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch says about Carlos Correa.
JONATHAN DYER, USA TODAY SPORTS “I don’t put limitation­s on him in terms of what’s possible,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch says about Carlos Correa.

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