Gonzales: Here's what Cubs fans would've asked had there been a convention

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • There's been talk of the Cubs' interest in Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who is a free agent.

    There's been talk of the Cubs' interest in Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who is a free agent. Associated Press

  • Nico Hoerner is in the conversation to bat leadoff and play second base for the Cubs next season.

    Nico Hoerner is in the conversation to bat leadoff and play second base for the Cubs next season. Associated Press

  • Nick Madrigal, acquired by the Cubs from the Sox, is candidate to beat leadoff.

    Nick Madrigal, acquired by the Cubs from the Sox, is candidate to beat leadoff. Associated Press

 
Updated 1/14/2022 3:42 PM

Forget about the 91-loss 2021 season and the departures of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant.

Ignore the frigid temperatures outside the Sheraton Grand, where optimism warms to late spring training temperatures approximately one month before pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Ariz.

 

That would have been the scene this weekend at the annual Cubs Convention.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 put the clamps on the festive three-day event for the second consecutive January, thus preventing eager fans eager to see their returning favorite players, stand in line for lengthy periods to get autographs of their Hall of Fame players, and ask baseball officials about the progress of several minor league players, particularly those acquired in trades for Rizzo, Baez and Bryant.

Major League Baseball's imposed lockout currently prevents executives from talking about players on the 40-man roster.

In the meantime, we'll try to answer some of the questions fans would have asked this weekend:

How serious are the Cubs about signing free agent Carlos Correa?

A former general manager once replied about an unsigned player: "Do I like the player? Yes. Do I like the price? (Pause)."

In case of Correa, length of contract might be a bigger issue than annual average value (which could exceed $34 million). The Cubs have invested millions of dollars in future shortstops, led by Cristian Hernandez and Ed Howard IV (ranked 3-4 in the system by FanGraphs), but they're several years away and there's no guarantee they'll come close to matching the production of Correa, who is only 27 and looking at his biggest payday.

A long-term deal with an opt-out clauses could help both sides. Correa has coped with back issues in past seasons, although he played 148 games in 2021 and produced his best offensive season.

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Plans to build a gambling parlor at Wrigley will net millions of dollars that could help fund a Correa contract.

Who will bat leadoff?

Here we go again. Dexter Fowler is available, but he's 35 and returning from a season-ending ankle injury.

Actually, it's a legitimate question as three of the nine players who filled that role in 2021 aren't on the roster. Rafael Ortega has a lifetime .358 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot but had a .293 percentage against left-handers last season.

As recently as two years ago, two player development executives projected Nico Hoerner as a future leadoff batter. That's before Hoerner's playing time was stunted in 2020 and prior to his body being transformed into a fullback and suffering hamstring and oblique injuries that limited him to 44 games.

It would be foolish to give up on Hoerner, 24, who had a .382 on-base percentage in 170 plate appearances in 2021. Hoerner also has an 82.4 percent contact rate, a big factor considering the Cubs led the majors with 1,596 strikeouts.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Second baseman Nick Madrigal is recovering from hamstring surgery and might be better suited at the second spot.

If the Cubs don't acquire a leadoff hitter, Hoerner could bat at the top while playing several positions.

Is more velocity on the way?

Perhaps in future seasons.

Signing starter Marcus Stroman gives the rotation more strikeout potential, and adding crafty left-hander Wade Miley on a waiver claim gives opponents different looks that didn't exist last year as the Cubs starters ranked last in the National League in strikeouts (643) and foes' batting average (. 278).

Most of the high velocity resides in the bullpen and in the minor leagues.

When does Brennen Davis arrive at Wrigley Field?

It's easy to get excited about Davis, 22, after he hit 19 homers and produced an .869 OPS at three levels in 2021. But Davis might need to continue to improve his contact rate at Triple-A Iowa for a few months.

Left-hander Brailyn Marquez's development was stunted by COVID protocols and a sore left shoulder last season. Grooming him for a starting role in 2023 is enticing, especially if he can stay healthy and throw strikes with more consistency. Caleb Killian, acquired from San Francisco in the Bryant trade, doesn't throw as hard as Marquez but displays the polish to perhaps receive a midseason promotion to Wrigley.

If you're looking for a fast-track reliever, Ben Leeper went from two Tommy John surgeries and going undrafted in 2020 to striking out 53 in 35 innings at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa last summer.

One opposing scout thought Max Bain could advance quickly. Bain, 24, increased his velocity by 10 mph to the high 90 mph range after losing 50 pounds following one season in the independent United States Professional Baseball League.

Bain struck out 113 in 93 innings at Class-A South Bend. He walked 56, but it could be a matter of time before his control catches up to his improved body frame.

@MDGonzales

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