Cubs

Bulls practice patience this offseason

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Bulls practice patience this offseason

As long as patience isn't a euphemism for being content, the Bulls offseason -- widely panned as among one of the most underwhelming in the NBA -- isn't nearly as bad as many observers are making it out to be.
Yes, the majority of the "Bench Mob" is gone, replaced by the likes of Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Vladimir Radmanovic, Nazr Mohammed and the return of Kirk Hinrich. But just because "financial decisions" heavily influenced this summer's moves doesn't mean the sky is falling.As important as his interior presence was to the team's success over the past two seasons, backup center Omer Asik wasn't slated to play heavy minutes with a healthy Joakim Noah in the lineup. More importantly, Asik wanted a bigger role, something the Bulls couldn't offer especially not at the price of approximately 15 million in the third year of his new contract with the Rockets. Robinson (all 5-foot-9 of him) isnt your prototypical point guard. Mohammed isn't a spry, young 7-footer, but he'll be serviceable in Asik's role. Jimmy Butler, based on his summer-league play, should be able to capably step in for Ronnie Brewer. Hinrich will be a slightly older version of the "Captain Kirk" Chicago last witnessed up-close two years ago. Belinelli has the ability to approximate Kyle Korver's production. Belinellis defense may leave something to be desired, but Korver wasn't exactly a stopper on that end of the floor when he first suited up for the Bulls. Meanwhile, Radmanovic brings a new offensive dimension to the lineup with his "stretch" power-forward game.But what made the "Bench Mob" great was its chemistry. Each player knew his role and the uncanny knack for raising their games Korver's unconscious shooting sprees, Brewer's ability to get into passing lanes on defense and to the rim on offense, C.J. Watson's blend of playmaking and scoring, John Lucas III's instant offense, Asik's subtle, game-changing defense on nights when nobody else on the team had it going. For better or worse, their games will change in their new situations as will that of Taj Gibson, who will likely have an expanded role because of the collective dynamic disappearing.From a purely financial perspective the replacements can be viewed as cost-cutting personnel moves, though an argument can be made that in a relatively weak Eastern Conference, bringing back the old crew and waiting for a boost from Derrick Rose's eventual return would give them as good a shot of getting past the Heat and to the NBA Finals as anybody. However, at the price of Asik's deal, signing Lucas to a multi-year contract and the option years for Korver, Brewer and Watson, it's understandable why the decision to tread water was made probably much earlier than most realize.Don't confuse action with progress, however, as Miami and Boston are and were already at the top of the East. It's questionable how much New York, Indiana and Philadelphia really improved and Brooklyn, for all of its splashy signings and spending, may be a playoff team but can't be considered a true contender just yet.But it's the idea that the Bulls must wait until the summer of 2014 to make another run that's puzzling, particularly if Rose, in the early prime of his career and just beginning a five-year max contract, can begin his return to form as one of the league's elite players in the 2013-14 campaign. While patience (there's that word again) is required in monitoring Rose's recovery this season, there's no reason to prematurely place restrictions on where he'll be more than a year after his ACL injury. And theres certainly no justification for wasting another season of the team's core, which also includes Noah, a presumably re-signed Gibson and for now, All-Star Luol Deng -- whose current contract expires in the 2014 offseason.It seems likely Carlos Boozer will be amnestied before his deal ends, but the assumption is that the Bulls will make use of that provision prior to the 2014-15 season and dovetail it with the 2014 free-agent class and the expected arrival of 2011 draft pick Nikola Mirotic from Spain. The theory goes like this: Mirotic would sit behind Gibson for seasoning then eventually slide into a starting role unless he proves to be capable of playing small forward at both ends, which would put him in position, as a rookie, to replace Deng. Either way, that plan requires a leap of faith as the Bulls would be able to add a marquee free agent: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay can opt out that summer, but it seems unlikely theyll sacrifice money or could find it hard to leave their current locales. Meanwhile, they could pursue an unrestricted free agent like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Paul Pierce, aging stars all or just wait another year when All-Star Kevin Love and others are available in 2015, but that seems like an eternity away.Instead, the Bulls could be better off looking toward next summer and targeting specific complimentary stars to pair with a starting lineup of Gibson -- who, equipped with a long-term extension, would be starting at power forward -- Rose, who could still be finding his stride, Noah and Deng. It smacks of the summer of 2010, except that young Bulls team -- Gibson was coming off a promising rookie season, but wasn't yet considered a consensus future full-time starter, while Rose hadn't reached MVP levels of play, Noah didn't have his long-term deal and a pre-All-Star Deng was perceived somewhat unfavorably in some circles -- was all about potential and hadn't done anything to differentiate themselves from the pack of teams with cap space that offseason.Outside of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, the free-agent class of 2013 isn't much ballyhooed, but it might be the best sure-shot opportunity the Bulls have to make a major addition while having enough core pieces on hand to do some real damage. And although there aren't any true superstars in the group, taking a run at one of the crops top shooting guards (James Harden, Tyreke Evans and Monta Ellis, if he exercises his early-termination option, are among those who could fit the bill) might be a more worthwhile gamble than sitting tight while the gap between the Bulls and the league's current elite teams, seemingly unfazed by salary-cap penalties imposed on their free-wheeling spending, widens.But back to the here and now. The Bulls head into this season with an identity as a blue-collar defensive juggernaut with a true superstar, going back-to-back seasons leading the NBA in regular-season wins, one of the game's best coaches in Tom Thibodeau -- whose contract situation needs to be addressed to help ensure the teams long-term success and respect outside the organization -- and after a trip to the conference finals that must feel like ages ago to fans, a recent track record of success. The upcoming season won't exactly be a wash -- book it: Chicago will be a playoff team -- but while it's fine to have lowered expectations for a year, it's another story to let your peers keep putting distance between you and title contention when the promise of future stars coming aboard isn't guaranteed.Even with Asik in Houston, the Bulls' strength is still their frontcourt. Noah is a top-10 NBA center and Gibson is a luxury to have coming off the bench as a starting-caliber power forward, so if the much-maligned Boozer departs (along with Richard Hamilton, who has a team option for 2013-14; combined, the two former All-Stars would give the Bulls approximately 20 million to afford to keep Gibson and bring in a star-level free agent), the cupboard won't be bare up front, especially given that Deng is an above-average rebounder for his position. Adding one of the aforementioned shooting guard trio to a starting backcourt with Rose -- none possesses a flawless game or will come at a discount, especially Harden who is probably the best fit but will be hard to pry from Oklahoma City as a restricted free agent. But the Thunder face a challenge in retaining the 22-year-old Sixth Man of the Year, as well as league-leading shot-blocker Serge Ibaka after signing All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to max deals. Being able to sign Harden would add another primary scorer and playmaking threat, giving the Bulls tremendous balance and another player to help their superstar shoulder the squad's offensive burden.Of course, the Bulls will have additional assets outside of amnesty if a palatable trade appears on the horizon. In addition to shopping Hamilton, for whom the team has a 5 million option for 2013-14, Chicago also has a 5 million trade exception acquired from Atlanta in the Korver deal, which would need to be used during the upcoming season. The Bulls also retain the now-legendary protected pick from Charlotte as well as Deng's contract. The franchise will have to do decide how and if the current longest-tenured Bull fits into its future equation, though they'll be hard-pressed to find a better player on the open market or get anything close to equal value in a trade scenario.Deng's hypothetical, but not unreasonable, situation aside -- particularly when considering that new additions Mohammed and Radmanovic are on one-year veteran-minimum deals and both Hinrich and Belinelli were signed to manageable two-year contracts, Butler would be on the third season of his rookie contract and first-round draft choice Marquis Teague will be entering his second NBA campaign assuming he improves enough to be a factor by then. Adding another veteran big man or two to replace Mohammed and fill Gibson's void on the bench will be necessary. After Malcolm Thomas was such a revelation in summer league, adding him or another young big man with upside to develop as a minimum-salaried, fifth post player this season with an opportunity for an expanded role in the future makes some sense. But the Bulls wouldn't need a dramatic overhaul, just a tweak or two, similar to the thought process when Rip Hamilton was signed before last season.However, this wouldn't be an aging veteran, albeit an established one, with injury concerns -- another reason to avoid splurging for the fading superstars in 2014. It would be a younger complement to Rose, helping him to truly believe that his hometown team -- to which he committed five more years without hesitation before his nightmare of an injury-plagued campaign began -- is serious about trying to win in the near future.
That, perhaps, is the most compelling reason for the Bulls to strike sooner than later. It can be accepted that the organization is pacing itself along with his recovery process now, but when he returns to the court -- while the preached mindset will be patience -- anybody that's ever been around Rose knows how hungry he is to win a championship. And nobody wants to be in the position of explaining why he's back to creating highlights on the court nightly, his old teammates were jettisoned in favor of new running mates who can't be described as upgrades and steps aren't being taken to rectify the situation.Without pretending to be a mind reader, Rose is astute enough to understand that some hard decisions had to be made this summer, in no small part because of his devastating injury. If he isn't causing a ruckus about the situation, Bulls fans should feel the same way as long as this phase is temporary and the team is only driving in the right lane until they can again purchase a vehicle with enough horsepower that they can keep up with the speedsters in the passing lane.
Although he's still young, Rose is now heading into his fifth year as a professional. While Chicago has basically watched him grow up over the years, the city shouldn't be surprised when -- if he doesn't have the supporting cast to get to the promised land -- his patience runs thin after a while.Until then, there's no reason to be up in arms about the Bulls' activity, or lack thereof, this offseason as the moves made by the organization -- while not popular -- indeed make fiscal sense. Its also clear that the belief that keeping the "Bench Mob" intact -- remember, Brewer, Watson and Korver would have been around for only one more season each -- and the chance that when Rose returns, the team makes a playoff run wasn't a realistic option for the front office and from a basketball standpoint.
The sum was greater than its parts, making it an easy choice. Breaking up a beloved contender hurts, even for members of the media who had grown fond of the group. But waiting a year for another run at a title can be tolerated and Belinelli's talk of championships during his press conference Tuesday at the Berto Center -- at least in his second season in Chicago -- won't ring so hollow locally.

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.