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.

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

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USA TODAY

Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

Friday, the Cubs announced they've signed right-hander Daniel Winkler to a one-year deal worth $750K. The deal is a split contract, meaning Winkler will earn a different salary in the major leagues than if he gets sent to the minor leagues. He has one minor league option remaining. 

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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