CHICAGO — Carlos Correa wowed Cubs officials with an impressive show of force during pre-draft practice at Wrigley Field in 2012. Dale Sveum, the Cubs manager at the time, threw batting drills at Correa and compared him to a young Alex Rodriguez. The Cubs believed they were in a strong position to lift the 17-year-old Puerto Rican shortstop to No. 6 — until the Astros reached an agreement to move Correa to No. 1 with a $4.8 million signing bonus close . The Cubs and Astros, bottom two of the National League Central who lost 208 games combined that year, won the 2016 and 2017 World Series and made tanking a standard practice in Major League Baseball.
After the Cubs knocked out key components of their championship core with a stunning sell-off at last year’s close, Correa became the free agent who could change the perception of an organization in decline. It’s extremely difficult to thread the competitive needle now while building for the future, but Correa’s presence could have helped the business and baseball side of the operation. Think of Correa as the telegenic face and bilingual voice of “The Next Great Cubs Team,” a gold-glove shortstop set to replace Javier Báez and promote a Marquee Sports Network that will feature the star power of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant is missing. The Cubs never made a formal offer to Correa during MLB’s hectic post-lockdown period, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
Is the third time a charm? Correa can exit his three-year, $105.3 million contract with the Twins after this season when he turns 28 and is exempt from a qualifying offer and the draft-pick compensation system. Once again, Cubs fans will be on Correa Watch provided they haven’t knocked out a team heading for 100 losses this season.
While acknowledging that he is solely focused on the American League Central-leading Twins, who played the first of 16 remaining games against the White Sox on Monday night, Correa raised several Cubs questions. Correa’s reps spoke to the Cubs before the lockout but have had no more talks after that.
“(The Cubs) were interested, but it felt like they were in a rebuilding phase,” Correa said. “I’ve always been on winning teams and I’ve always had successful seasons. I don’t want to go through the reconstruction phase. One of the main reasons I signed here is because I saw an opportunity to win the division and make the playoffs. Right now it’s the 4th of July and I don’t regret that decision one bit. It’s definitely the best decision I’ve made.”
The twins are delighted with what they received from Correa and it extends well beyond the field. Presented to them by his newly hired agent Scott Boras as being a good fit for the player and the team, it took the twins just 14 hours to sign Correa on March 22.
They believed they would add a standout player, a mid-level at-bat, and a standout defenseman with a high baseball IQ who could help improve the rest of the roster. What they didn’t know was that they were going to get an all-around motivator, a player who knows how to lead from the front or wherever he’s needed in the clubhouse. Correa isn’t afraid to say it like it is when the twins need to hear it, just as he isn’t intimidated to bow to Star Center fielder Byron Buxton.
The twins have thrived with Correa’s presence in the clubhouse and wouldn’t mind if he opted again next season, although club officials acknowledge it’s a long shot for the shortstop to avoid a huge payday for a second straight offseason would. However, with top contestant Royce Lewis sidelined until July 2023 after undergoing a second operation to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the twins would have no problem re-pinning Correa if he wanted to stay.
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Like most baseball executives, Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, values optionality and acts with more emotion than Theo Epstein, his legendary predecessor and longtime associate in Boston and Chicago. From Hoyer’s point of view, the number of years is more of a problem than the dollars guaranteed with these long-term contracts. Ideally, the Cubs would layer those deals from one offseason to the next, buy time for their prospects, and remain competitive at the major league level without limiting their options going forward. And then get going “when the time is right,” as Crane Kenney, the Cubs’ president of business operations, recently told 670 The Score, the team’s flagship radio station.
From the clubhouse perspective, the problem is that winning is not a switch that can be turned on and off. Postponing it to 2024 or 2025 is an affront to fans paying for one of baseball’s most expensive experiences. The two big free agents the Cubs added for this transition season — Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki — underperformed largely due to injuries. Desperate is too strong a word to describe the mindset – the Cubs have a large pool of young talent and a better infrastructure than in 2012 – but the start of another rebuild has definitely put the entire organization on the defensive.
The Cubs earned skepticism about spending, doubts from their fans and the Chicago media after a harsh response to financial losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. The firing of more than 100 employees in 2020, the trade of Yu Darvish to the Padres after winning a division title, and the non-tendering of Kyle Schwarber instead of guiding him through the arbitration all fueled this cynicism.
It’s impossible to know the full scope of the upcoming off-season until after the August 2nd trading close. The decision for outfielder Ian Happ – a first-round pick who will appear at All-Star level and under club control next year – will be particularly telling for the organization’s schedule. Still, it’s almost inconceivable that the Cubs won’t have a great winter after cutting back on this scale and having to fill so many positions. According to RosterResource, her promised major league payroll next year is $94 million, or nearly $109 million in terms of luxury tax accounting. By the end of the 2023 season, Stroman could be out of his contract, Jason Heyward’s mega deal is off the books and the Cubs hold a $16 million option on Kyle Hendricks (assuming he’s not traded by then) and a 6- Dollar option Million option for catcher Yan Gomes. Otherwise, Suzuki and utility infielder David Bote are the only Cubs players with guaranteed 2024 contracts.
When Correa became available, the twins knew they had to act quickly. Their core group, which took them to the playoffs in 2017, 2019 and 2020, is hungry for wins but is partly to blame for the longest postseason losing streak in major North American sports history, an 18-game streak that dates back to 2004 this is full of glitches, minimal offense and poorly executed pitches. They looked at Correa’s post-season resume (he’s played in 79 playoff games) and thought the additions of him along with Gary Sanchez, Gio Urshela, Sonny Gray and Joe Smith could get them there.
Players have regularly mentioned how Correa has brought a new mindset to the clubhouse. He spreads similar messages about the winning mentality as other previous teammates with Gravitas, but in a much more effective way, and they eat it up. It’s one of the reasons the Twins have avoided a more than three-game losing streak in 2022 and have managed to routinely bounce back when faced with adversity, whether it’s bullpen meltdowns, massive injuries or the shocking exit by coach Wes Johnson in last week’s season.
The Cubs will use the next three months as their evaluation window, but manager David Ross continues to rave about shortstop Nico Hoerner, another first-round pick whose performance was already worth a 2.4 WAR according to the Baseball Reference this season. Hoerner always believed he was capable of playing shortstop at major league level and so far he has remained healthy enough to prove it. Hoerner is also an emerging leader at Wrigley Field’s clubhouse, focused on winning rather than individual awards. The Cubs already know that Hoerner is a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman, a selfless teammate, and a Stanford grad. Pairing Correa with Hoerner would give the Cubs pitchers a dynamic up-the-middle combination to work behind them.
A major roadblock is already out of the way as Correa is stripped of the qualifying bid that has slowed any momentum toward Chicago. The Cubs estimated the value of the draft picks they would have had to give up to sign Correa — and the corresponding money they would have lost in their draft bonus and international signing pools — at around $20 million. While that forecast may sound high, Mets owner Steve Cohen offered some insight when he vented on his Twitter account after his baseball operations team failed to sign Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker, the No. 10 draft pick last year: “Education Time – Baseball draft picks are worth up to 5x their slot value for clubs. I never shy away from investments that can bring me that kind of return.”
Correa expects the Cubs to return when he becomes available. He noticed when Cubs fans tried their best to lure him in via social media and appreciated their efforts. High fan expectations have led Correa to believe the Cubs will be very active this offseason and he has always valued the organization.
“Wrigley is Wrigley and the Cubs are the Cubs — it’s a great organization with such a great fan base,” he said.
But for now, he’s focused on the twins.
Correa loves playing alongside Buxton and in the player-friendly atmosphere created by Twins manager Rocco Baldelli. He’s been in Minnesota less than four months and has already said he could see a long-term fit. He wants to help the Twins take the next step forward.
“Honestly, I’m not even thinking about (free agency) right now,” Correa said. “It didn’t occur to me. A lot of people have been talking about the opt-outs and this and that. I still feel like I want to help this team achieve that ultimate goal and still feel like I have a lot more work to do this year. My season has improved month by month. I intend to continue doing that and focus on this group of guys.”
(Photo: Jay Biggerstaff / Getty Images)