Cubs

Blackhawks breakdown:Niklas Hjalmarsson

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Blackhawks breakdown:Niklas Hjalmarsson

Over the next five weeks, CSNChicago.com Blackhawks Insider Tracey Myers and PGL host Chris Boden will evaluate the 2011-12 performance of each player on the Hawks roster. One breakdown will occur every weekday in numerical order.

Niklas Hjalmarsson played in 69 games in 2011-12, scoring one goal with 14 assists for 15 points and finishing with a plus-9 rating. He averaged 20 minutes and 11 seconds per game, had 14 penalty minutes, 42 hits and 142 blocked sots. In six playoff games against the Coyotes his playing time dipped to 18 minutes and 10 seconds per game. He had one assist, five hits and seven blocked shots while finishing minus-3.

Boden's take: Hjalmarsson will turn just 25 years old in June, but as he enters his fourth full season, we probably have a pretty good idea who he is and what he provides. He sacrifices his body to block shots. At 6-foot-3, maybe we'd like to see him play a little more consistently physical against opponents, like he showed in glimpses against Shane Doan in the playoffs. But if he's considered a second-pair defenseman, would it be fair to expect a little more offensive bang for the 14 million the team invested in him to match San Jose's RFA offer sheet two years ago? He's halfway through that four-year deal now, and he has yet to top the 17 points he delivered in the 2009-10 Cup season, the three goals he posted the following season, or higher than a plus-13 rating.

Myers' take: One of the biggest questions regarding Hjalmarsson this season was, who was going to be his new partner and how would he adjust to him? Hjalmarsson had built up a great rapport with Brian Campbell the previous two seasons but had to get used to playing with someone else in 2011-12. He and Nick Leddy formed a good pair early. But as the season went on the defensive pairings changed -- as they and the forward lines usually do. Hjalmarsson had a few different partners, including Brent Seabrook during Duncan Keith's suspension. But he was sidetracked when he suffered a concussion in early February that cost him 13 games. Despite that, Hjalmarsson had a pretty steady, if not eye-catching, season.

2012-13 Expectations

Chris: Likely, more of the same. Hjalmarsson himself admits he'd like to provide more offense, and spent most of the first year of that deal pressing to do just that. I'm not sure how realistic that is. He's a regular on the penalty-killing units. He blocks shots, and somewhat overlooked is the fact that's he's also been paired for most of the past two seasons with a talented, but very "green" Leddy. Barring the addition of more veteran help on the blue line, he might very well have to help "coach up" Dylan Olsen next season.

If he can't supply any more offense, the Hawks need him to be more consistent and reliable in his own end, help the PK improve and look to play more physical with a body that goes through a lot of sacrifice as it is. This defense needs to be better next season -- whether it's in front of Corey Crawford in goal, or someone else. Others need to pitch in and take some minutes away from Keith and Seabrook. If it comes strictly from within the current defensive crop in place, Hjalmarsson will be among those who have to make it happen.

Tracey: Two seasons ago Hjalmarsson said he wanted to bring more offense to his game. It took him quite a while to get his first point last season and he finished with 15. Whatever offense Hjalmarsson adds, fine. But his defense is what he's getting paid for and he's still the best shot blocker on the team. If Hjalmarsson keeps focusing on that, and gets a steady blue-line partner this coming season, he should be fine.

How do you feel about this evaluation? As always, be sure to chime in with your thoughts by commenting below and check out some of Hjalmarsson's highlights above.

Previously: Duncan Keith

Up next: Steve Montador

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.