Former University of Maine shortstop Jeremy Pena is the front-runner to be the Opening Day shortstop for the Houston Astros if the team doesn’t re-sign two-time All-Star Carlos Correa.
Third-round draft pick Pena, who is 24, underwent wrist surgery last year but when he returned in August, he hit .287 for Triple-A Sugar Land with four doubles, two triples, 10 home runs and 19 runs-batted-in in just 30 games. The slick-fielding Pena, a Providence native and son of former Major Leaguer Geronimo Pena, also played for Estrellas Orientales in the Dominican Republic Winter League and hit .291 with two homers and 15 RBIs in 30 games.
In three minor league seasons encompassing 182 games, he has hit .291 with 18 homers, 85 RBIs, 31 doubles, 10 triples and 29 stolen bases in 40 attempts. He has struck out 150 times and drawn 73 walks in 789 plate appearances. Astros manager Dusty Baker said Wednesday Pena was the top candidate for the starting job if Correa does not return, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Pena is one of six former Black Bears playing for an affiliated professional baseball organization and the closest to the major leagues. The other five are Toronto Blue Jays catcher Chris Bec, and pitchers Nick Sinacola (San Francisco Giants), Alex McKenney (Philadelphia Phillies), Cody Laweryson (Minnesota Twins) and Justin Courtney (New York Mets).
Courtney, a Bangor native and former UMaine Freshman All-American, pitched a scoreless inning in a spring training game for the Mets’ minor leaguers against the Florida Marlins minor leaguers on Saturday and is looking forward to this season as a three-pitch pitcher. He is with the Mets minor leaguers in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
The 25-year-old righthander spent his first pro season last year with the Los Angeles Angels organization before moving on to the Mets organization in September.
Courtney was 3-1 as a reliever for LA’s Inland Empire Class A team with two saves in three opportunities, a 5.63 earned-run average and 46 strikeouts and 10 walks in 40 innings. He allowed six homers and 49 hits in his 22 appearances. He had two outings for the Mets’ Rookie League team spanning three innings with no hits or runs allowed, a strikeout and a walk.
He spent most of the offseason working with pitching guru Tom House in San Diego and his focus was getting command of his changeup and curveball.
“I feel like my fastball command is excellent. But I needed more command of my changeup and curve in order to make it easier to mix my pitches,” Courtney said. “If I can throw all of them to a location at any time, that will make me more unpredictable.
He said his fastball has been sitting between 93 and 94 miles per hour, occasionally hitting 95. But that should go up to 97 or 98 by the season. He noted that he has to hit his spots with his pitches and not leave them over the middle of the plate.
But he said he feels “10 times better” than he did at this time last year because he has a year of minor league experience under his belt. The Mets told him in September that they would like him to be a multi-inning reliever and spot starter and he is fine with that, a role he believes he is ready for.
He wants to start the season in the Double-A Eastern League with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, knowing they are scheduled to visit the Portland Sea Dogs for six games from April 19-24 and again in September.
“So if the Major League team needs a strike thrower who can come up (from the minors) and give them innings, I can do it.”.
Courtney had always been a starter prior to last season, concluding his UMaine career with a 12-17 record and a 3.92 ERA including a 5-6 mark and a 3.24 ERA as a freshman which earned him a berth on the All-America East second team and All-Rookie Team honors. He had Tommy John surgery in 2018 to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
The 26-year-old Bec, a fifth round draft choice of the Blue Jays, hit .181 in 49 games for Double-A New Hampshire with two homers and 14 RBIs. He stole 11 bases in 14 attempts.
The 22-year-old Sinacola, a seventh round pick who became the first pitcher in the history of the UMaine program to be chosen a first team All-American last season, tossed 6 1/3 innings for the Giants’ Rookie League team and allowed only two hits with 11 strikeouts.
The 23-year-old Laweryson, who is from Moscow, Maine, was a 14th round selection of the Twins and was 2-5 with a 4.91 ERA at High-A Cedar Rapids last season with 72 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings. He pitched for Scottsdale in the Fall League and was selected an all-star after striking out 18 in 14 innings. He was 0-1 with a 3.86 ERA.
Hampden’s McKenney, like Courtney, wasn’t drafted and signed a free agent deal. The 22-year-old was 2-1 with a 1.56 ERA in nine games for Clearwater in Low-A baseball. He struck out 17 in 17 1/3 innings.
“To have all of us playing pro ball says a lot about the program at Maine,” said Courtney. “Getting a chance to play against them would be pretty cool.”