Bears

Albert Almora will drive a hard bargain with Cubs

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Albert Almora will drive a hard bargain with Cubs

MILWAUKEE For Albert Almora, it was either a pool or a batting cage, and that wasnt really a choice at all.

Almora credited his fathers imagination for turning the backyard of their South Florida home into a training ground for one of the best amateur players in the country, the No. 6 overall pick in the draft.

Cubs executives visited the house, and the MLB Network gave a glimpse into Almoras world the cage, the pull-up bar and the rope tied to a tree for climbing.

This sport runs in my veins, Almora said.

Jason McLeod, who oversees scouting and player development for the Cubs, raved about Almoras work ethic and internal drive. So its hard to imagine someone wired this way turning down an opportunity like this.

But it was interesting to listen to the 18-year-old outfielder from Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens, whos being advised by agent Scott Boras and trying to create some leverage.

My main priority right now is college, Almora said Tuesday on a conference call. I just graduated high school right now and I have a full scholarship to the University of Miami and thats what Im looking forward to.

When the times right and everything works out, then itll happen. But for right now my main priority is the University of Miami.

Ill guarantee that Im ready for major-league baseball, but well have to see what happens.

Almora didnt attach too much significance to being the first draft choice of the Theo Epstein administration: Im just happy to be picked by a major-league club. Its something that Ive worked for all my life.

But McLeods first pick (No. 65) running the draft for the Boston Red Sox in 2004 was an undersized player from Arizona State University named Dustin Pedroia, who would go on to win a World Series ring and become the American League MVP in 2008.

If there are great expectations, the Cubs liked how Almora was drawn to the higher levels of competition, playing year-round for elite travel teams in Florida and winning five gold medals for Team USA.

The front office surely has an idea of what it will take to sign Almora under the new, restrictive collective bargaining agreement. The bonus recommended by the commissioners office is 3.25 million, according to Baseball America.

In my mind, I trust my abilities and I know what I can do on the field, but thats not the priority right now, Almora said. We have to let everything the process play out and let the cards fall where they have to fall. I cant control that. Thats something that Chicago has to talk about with their organization and come to an agreement.

Cubs manager Dale Sveum watched video of Almora before the draft and came away impressed with his effortless swing.

That guys pretty far ahead of the game with his mechanics, Sveum said. He does a lot of (the) things that a lot of good hitters do, (the kind) of things that pan out in the long run.

Looking to the future and trying to address the organizations biggest need the Cubs selected seven straight pitchers after Almora.

Through the first two days, the Cubs have picked 11 pitchers, one infielder, three outfielders and two catchers. Eleven players are from college and six are out of high school. The draft ends Wednesday with rounds 16-40.

The new labor deal pushed up the deadline to sign draft picks to July 13. The Cubs will be looking to close on a player they feel can push teammates and lead by example.

All I can guarantee from me is that Im going to play the game 120 percent, Almora said. I cant guarantee that Ill hit four or five home runs, but Ill be giving it my all every day.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?