Cubs

How the Cubs almost landed Carlos Correa as their franchise shortstop

How the Cubs almost landed Carlos Correa as their franchise shortstop

A Cubs scout laughed and said he still dreams about the time Carlos Correa took batting practice at Wrigley Field. It definitely sounded like a joke, but in the middle of the 2012 season — Theo Epstein’s first running baseball operations on the North Side — the franchise could only sell dreams, hopes and promises to Cubs fans and the Chicago media.

Correa symbolized the future as a 17-year-old shortstop out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy. A group of Cubs officials watched Dale Sveum, the manager at the time, throw to Correa, who hit balls into the bleachers after a game in late May. Sveum looked at the 6-foot-4-inch frame, envisioned the power potential and came away from that pre-draft workout with a former teammate in mind: Alex Rodriguez.

Less than a week later, sources said, the Cubs spent part of draft day on the phone negotiating with Correa’s camp, pushing to close a deal that would have made him the sixth overall pick. Paul Kinzer, Correa’s adviser at that point, had long-standing connections in Chicago through his associations with Aramis Ramirez, Starlin Castro, Carlos Marmol and Geovany Soto.

The Cubs kept getting strong signals that Correa could fall and felt this close to landing a potential superstar. The only wild card would be the Houston Astros, another franchise following their own tanking blueprint and holding the No. 1 choice.

The Astros got this one right, signing Correa to a below-slot deal ($4.8 million bonus) and watching him blossom into the American League Rookie of the Year in 2015 and a 19-homer, 90-RBI force for a playoff contender this season.

Imagine Correa anchoring an infield with MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo at the corners, playing next to Addison Russell or Javier Baez, with each player remaining under club control through the 2021 season.

The what-if scenarios will become part of the backdrop for this weekend’s series at Minute Maid Park, where the Cubs will go into Friday night’s game with a single-digit magic number (eight) to clinch the National League Central. While the Astros (74-66) will be 2 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot, hoping Correa can rejoin the lineup after dealing with left shoulder inflammation.

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Whether the Cubs win the World Series this year — or collapse under all this pressure — just look back to May 30, 2012, to understand how far this organization has come. Before Correa’s laser show at Wrigley Field, the Cubs pieced together an 8-6 win over the San Diego Padres with Joe Mather as their No. 3 hitter and Bryan LaHair and Ian Stewart as their corner infielders.

How different would this year’s team look with Correa? The Cubs now have an All-Star shortstop in Russell. But maybe during the rebuilding/ramp-up period Epstein’s front office would have felt more comfortable dealing Baez for a frontline pitcher, sold higher on Castro (instead of getting 35 innings out of Adam Warren) and redistributed the $56 million committed to Ben Zobrist. Who knows?

In 2012, the Cubs sensed the opportunity if the Astros passed on Correa, because after the Minnesota Twins took an athletic high school outfielder with the second overall pick (Byron Buxton), the Seattle Mariners (catcher Mike Zunino), Baltimore Orioles (pitcher Kevin Gausman) and Kansas City Royals (pitcher Kyle Zimmer) took advanced college players.

The Cubs made Albert Almora Jr. the first player drafted by the Epstein regime, betting the No. 6 pick on his high floor, up-the-middle potential and track record against elite competition while growing up in South Florida and playing for Team USA. Almora could be in the conversation for a playoff roster spot this October, an Opening Day starter in 2017 and a future Gold Glove outfielder.

The Cubs didn’t have a good feel for Russell and didn’t establish much of a relationship with him during his early development in high school, when he looked either out of shape or too bulked up to stick at shortstop. The Oakland A’s used the No. 11 pick on Russell, flipping him to the Cubs in the blockbuster Jeff Samardzija trade two years later.

By the end of the 2012 season, the Astros had won the race to the bottom, losing 107 games, six more than the Cubs. Houston would get the first overall pick in the 2013 draft, selecting Stanford University pitcher Mark Appel and allowing the Cubs to mine their own superstar prospect at No. 2: Bryant.

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: