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.