Blackhawks

Aramis, Pena & Big Z: Moving on with mixed results

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Aramis, Pena & Big Z: Moving on with mixed results

Remember when things seemed so daunting for the St. Louis Cardinals?

They had just lost out on the Albert Pujols sweepstakes, as the perennial MVP candidate put his faith in the Angels and went West. Tony La Russa was not going to return as manager and Dave Duncan, arguably the best pitching coach in the game, was slated to miss the entire season for personal issues.

That was just 10 short months ago. Now, the Cards are only one victory away from a second-straight NL pennant.

A lot can change in a year.

Take a look at the Cubs. They finished the 2011 season packed with valuable veterans -- Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena and Carlos Zambrano -- and promising youngsters -- Tyler Colvin, D.J. LeMahieu, Andrew Cashner and Chris Carpenter.

All seven of those guys were gone before spring training even started. While the Cubs struggled to a 101-loss season, let's check in on how this group fared.

Aramis Ramirez

Ramirez and the Cubs were synonymous since that fateful 2003 season. He was a staple at third base, bringing consistency to the position for the first time since the Ron Santo days. At age 33, he didn't fit in the Cubs' rebuilding plan and wound up signing with the Brewers, where he almost made Milwaukee forget about Prince Fielder.

Ramirez put together a very solid season, leading the league in doubles (50) and tied for first in extra-base hits (80) with teammate Ryan Braun, whom Ramirez protected in the lineup all year. The Brewers didn't end up making the playoffs, but Ramirez helped key a strong run towards the end of the year and finished with 27 homers, 105 RBI (his first 100 RBI season since 2008), a .300 average and a .901 OPS.

Carlos Zambrano

Big Z was the longest tenured Cub on the roster last year and after a blow-up in Atlanta last August, the soap opera that is Carlos Zambrano came to an end in the Cubs clubhouse. He racked up 125 victories and 1,542 strikeouts in more than 300 games (282 starts) over an 11-year span.

He was dealt to Miami this winter, teaming up with friend and manager Ozzie Guillen, and was deemed as a potential sleeper for the NL Cy Young by former teammate Matt Garza. Zambrano had no such luck, as, after a hot start, he struggled and wound up in the bullpen to finish the season with a 7-10 record, 4.49 ERA and 1.50 WHIP.

Carlos Pena

Pena was only a one-year rental and had a very solid 2011 season, walking 101 times and slugging 28 homers while playing very good defense at first base and bringing a positive attitude in the clubhouse.

But his age (33 this winter) and the arrivalemergence of Anthony Rizzo and Bryan LaHair made Pena expendable this winter and he was not re-signed, instead opting to go back to Tampa Bay. There, Pena hit 19 homers and drove in 61 runs, but managed just a .197 average and .684 OPS, a far cry from his career numbers (.234 and .822, respectively). 2012 marked the second season in the last three in which Pena failed to hit even .200.

Tyler ColvinD.J. LeMahieu

Anybody who's followed the Cubs over the past year has likely heard the much-publicized deal that sent Colvin and LeMahieu to Colorado for Ian Stewart and minor-league pitcher Casey Weathers. Neither Colvin (a former first-round pick) nor LeMahieu (a former second-round pick) was guaranteed to have a place to play in 2012 and the Cubs needed a third baseman, so they took a gamble on a low-risk guy in Stewart. It was Theo Epstein's first trade in the Cubs' front office and hasn't worked out in his favor to date, as Stewart struggled to find consistency at the plate before being shut down with a wrist injury halfway through the season.

Both young players wound up having fairly productive seasons for the Rockies, but they combined for just 34 walks in 699 plate appearances. That kind of aggressiveness doesn't fit in Theo's vision for the Cubs, despite the fact they both hit close to .300  (Colvin -- .290; LeMahieu -- .297) and Colvin added some power, with 55 extra-base hits, including 18 homers.

Andrew Cashner

Cashner was considered to be a major piece for the future when Theo and Co. took over as a flame-throwing right-hander who had as high upside as anybody in the Cubs' system. But after arm issues sidelined Cashner for most of the 2011 season, the new front office was hesitant to put Cashner in the taxing position of a starting pitcher, and traded him to the Padres for Rizzo.

The 26-year-old right-hander had a solid year for San Diego, hurling a 4.27 ERA and 1.32 WHIP while striking out 52 in 46.1 innings. But most of that was as a reliever -- he started just five games -- and he spent time on the disabled list, while Rizzo emerged as a franchise cornerstone for the Cubs.

Chris Carpenter

The rest of the players on this list either had significant playing time in 2011 or figured to be a big part of 2012 and beyond, but Carpenter was a 25-year-old middle reliever with upside for more if he could harness his 100 mph fastball. His claim to fame, of course, was as the compensation for Theo Epstein, making the trek to Boston.

An elbow injury derailed most of Carpenter's 2012, but he came back strong, posting a 1.15 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP in 15.2 innings in Triple-A Pawtucket before appearing in eight games for the big-league Red Sox, struggling to the tune of a 9.00 ERA and 2.83 WHIP.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks face Golden Knights for first time

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks face Golden Knights for first time

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Vegas Golden Knights Tuesday on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 8:45 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Corey Crawford vs. ... Oscar Dansk? 

The Golden Knights have seen both Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban go down with injuries, so they're scraping for goaltenders at this point.

On one end of the ice, you have one of the best netminders in the league and a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Crawford. On the other, you have a 23-year-old rookie in Dansk making his first official NHL start who will be backed up by a 24-year-old rookie in Maxime Lagace, who has never appeared in an NHL game.

In his first game action, Dansk stopped 10 of 11 shots in relief during Saturday's 3-2 overtime win over St. Louis.

2. Fast start.

The Blackhawks are tied for second in both goals scored (13) and fewest goals allowed (four) in the first period, which has a large reason for their early season success.

The Golden Knights aren't the kind of team that gets out to a blazing start. They've allowed only five goals in the opening frame, but they've scored only five as well, which ranks among the bottom 10 teams in the league. 

3. Beware of James Neal.

The Golden Knights became the first team in NHL history to win six of their first seven games of their inaugural season. And they probably don't have half of those wins if it weren't for Neal, who scored the game-winning goal in each of their first three games.

He leads the club with six goals and eight points, and serves as the motor for a team that doesn't have much offensive talent. He's the go-to guy, and somebody you have to keep an eye on when he's on the ice.

 

Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against LeBron and the Cavaliers

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against LeBron and the Cavaliers

Here are Three Things to Watch in the Bulls' Tuesday night tilt against the Cavaliers on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live.

1. LeBron James will be on your television

Love him or hate him, LeBron James is must-see TV. Now in his 15th NBA season, James has shown no signs of slowing down. Despite playing just one preseason game (against the Bulls), James has shown anything but rust in three games, averaging 25.0 points on 60 percent shooting, 8.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists in nearly 37 minutes. He's a threat every night to do something you've never seen on a basketball court, His Airness included. Justin Holiday and Paul Zipser will have their hands full against the game's best player.

2. Lauri Markkanen, Week 2

Small sample size alert! But through the season's first week Markkanen and Ben Simmons are the only rookies averaging a double-double (Dallas' Dennis Smith has played just one game, averaging 16 points and 10 assists). While the Bulls have struggled through two games, Markkanen's net rating is third best on the team and he leads the Bulls bigs in rebounds per game and rebound percentage. Markkanen has shown some versatility offensively, and his 7 free-throw attempts have been a nice surprise as well.

3. Don't forget: The Bulls swept the Cavaliers last year

OK, so expecting a victory Tuesday night in Cleveland isn't smart. The Bulls will be underdogs just like they were in each of the four games last season, all of which were Bulls winners. It was the first time in 52 division series that LeBron James had been swept, which is pretty remarkable considering the Bulls were the No. 8 seed and the Cavs coasted to a third straight NBA Finals. We're not over here predicting a win. But just remember: the Bulls have fared well against James in the regular season.