Cubs

Colts release Peyton Manning

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Colts release Peyton Manning

From Comcast SportsNet
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts ended their successful partnership with a tearful goodbye Wednesday, when team owner Jim Irsay released the star quarterback rather than pay a whopping 28 million bonus while there are lingering questions about his health. "We all know that nothing lasts forever," Manning said. "Times change, circumstances change, and that's the reality of playing in the NFL." Manning and Irsay each paused frequently, fighting tears and their voices shaking, as they appeared together at a news conference at the Colts' team complex. It was an unusual and awkward scene, two men whose NFL lives have been so closely intertwined, standing side-by-side in jackets and ties as they told the world they were splitting up. "This has not been easy for Jim," Manning said, "and this has certainly not been easy for me." The 35-year-old Manning will become a free agent, and is expected to generate interest from a half-dozen or so NFL clubs, provided he's healthy. Manning is coming off a series of operations to his neck and missed all of last season when his team's record, not coincidentally, plummeted to 2-14. "Peyton is on the mend to try to resume his career," Irsay noted. Indianapolis needed to cut Manning this week to avoid paying him a bonus from the 90 million, five-year contract he signed in July, although both owner and player insisted the decision was not really about money. The Colts are widely expected to begin moving on by taking Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft. Irsay repeatedly used the word "rebuilding" and acknowledged: "We're definitely a few years away." Manning won't retire and hopes to be playing in the NFL at the start of next season. Still, he said Wednesday: "I'll always be a Colt. I always will be. That'll never change." The announcement was made in a room at the Colts' complex normally reserved for celebratory news conferences, such as the hiring of a new coach or general manager -- two other major steps Irsay took recently. The room is lined with banners honoring some of the team's greatest stars, including, of course, Manning himself, flanked by Pro Football Hall of Famer members Eric Dickerson and John Mackey. Clearly, this was not an easy goodbye for Manning. He even got choked up while discussing all of the Colts employees he'll no longer be around, pausing to collect himself while noting: "We've got the greatest equipment guys in the world." "I think about those type of relationships -- not necessarily always on the field, and the touchdown throw to win the game. It's the behind the scenes. The laughs. The stories. The times spent together. Those are the memories. Those aren't going away. Those will be with me for the rest of my life." Manning forever will be thought of around these parts as No. 18, the quarterback who led the Colts to an NFL championship, barking out signals while waving his arms at the line of scrimmage to change a play after reading the defense -- something he did as well as any QB. He'll be remembered, too, for his record four MVP awards, his 50,000 yards passing and his 200 consecutive starts. Most of all, Manning will be the guy in the horseshoe helmet who turned around a franchise and transformed a basketball-loving city into a football hotbed that hosted the Super Bowl a month ago. And during that Super Bowl week, the hottest topic of conversation was Peyton Manning, not his younger brother Eli, who wound up leading the New York Giants to the title. Arizona, Miami, Tennessee, Washington and the New York Jets all have been rumored as possible destinations now; Manning's former offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, Tom Moore, worked for the Jets as a consultant last season. "There will be no other Peyton Manning," Irsay said, adding that he hoped Wednesday's joint appearance would serve to "honor incredible memories and incredible things that he's done for the franchise, for the city, for the state." This marks the end of a strong marriage between a player and team. After being a No. 1 draft pick himself, Manning started every meaningful game for 13 seasons in Indianapolis -- 227 in a row, including the playoffs -- and took the Colts from perennial also-ran to one of the NFL's model franchises and the 2007 Super Bowl title. In the two decades predating his arrival, the Colts won 116 games, one division title and made the playoffs three times. With Manning taking snaps, the Colts have won 150 games, eight division titles, two AFC championships and the franchise's first league championship since moving from Baltimore in 1984. Indianapolis broke the NFL record for most regular-season wins in a decade (115), and tied Dallas' mark for most consecutive playoff appearances (nine). Manning is one of just four players to reach 50,000 yards passing, one of three with more than 350 TD tosses, and one of two quarterbacks with more than 200 starts in a row. He broke all of the franchise's major career passing records, previously held by Hall of Fame quarterback John Unitas. In 2009, Manning led the Colts to the cusp of NFL history with a 14-0 start, fueling talk of an unbeaten season. But it has been mostly bad news ever since. The Colts pulled their starters against the Jets and lost the final two games that season. Indy then wound up losing to New Orleans in the Super Bowl. During the offseason, Manning had the first of his neck operations. Then, after making an early playoff exit in the 2010 season, Manning underwent another neck surgery to repair a damaged nerve that was causing weakness in his throwing arm. When the nerve did not heal as quickly as expected, Manning had two vertebrae fused in September, an operation that forced him to miss a game for the first time in his NFL career. There are still questions about the strength of Manning's arm. But given all that he's accomplished, there are sure to be new suitors. "I'm throwing it pretty well. I've still got some work to do; I've got some progress to make," Manning said. "But I've come a long way. I've really worked hard. I can't tell you the hours and the time I've put in."

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

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USA TODAY

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

As Cactus League play begins, how many spots are actually up for grabs on the White Sox roster?

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AP

As Cactus League play begins, how many spots are actually up for grabs on the White Sox roster?

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Some teams have it easy, with their 25-man rosters seemingly locked into place before spring training games even start.

The White Sox actually have a lot more locked-down spots than you might think for a rebuilding team, but this spring remains pretty important for a few guys.

The starting rotation figures to be set, with James Shields, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Miguel Gonzalez and Carson Fulmer the starting five. Carlos Rodon, of course, owns one of those spots once he returns from injury. But the date of that return remains a mystery.

From this observer’s viewpoint, eight of the everyday nine position players seem to be figured out, too: Welington Castillo behind the plate, Jose Abreu at first base, Yoan Moncada at second base, Tim Anderson at shortstop, Yolmer Sanchez at third base, Nicky Delmonico in left field, Avisail Garcia in right field and Matt Davidson as the designated hitter. More on the omission of a starting center fielder in a bit.

Omar Narvaez would be a logical pick to back up Castillo at catcher, and Tyler Saladino is really the lone reserve infielder with big league experience, not to mention he’s a versatile player that can play anywhere on the infield.

Leury Garcia also figures to be a lock for this 25-man roster. But will he be the everyday center fielder, as he was for a spell last season? He played 51 games in center in 2017 but battled injuries throughout the year. I think Leury Garcia will end up the starting center fielder when the season begins because of his bat. His .270/.316/.423 slash line isn’t going to make anyone do cartwheels, but it’s better than the offensive struggles of Adam Engel, who started 91 games in center in 2017 and slashed .166/.235/.282. Engel would still be a solid inclusion on the bench because of his superb defense, but to create that big a hole in the everyday lineup is tough.

How could that position-player group change? Keep your eyes in center field, where there are a couple other guys who could force their way into a roster spot this spring: Charlie Tilson and Ryan Cordell. Tilson has had a tremendous amount of trouble staying on the field since coming over to the White Sox in a 2016 deadline deal, but that hasn’t dampened the White Sox hopes for him. And Cordell got name-dropped by general manager Rick Hahn during SoxFest, when the GM said he’s received multiple calls about Cordell since acquiring him last summer. Cordell put up good numbers at the Triple-A level prior to a significant injury last year.

But the main battles figure to be in the bullpen. At times this winter, as the White Sox kept adding players to that relief corps mix, that the whole thing seemed wide open. But when you think about it, maybe there are only one or two open spots.

You’d have to think these guys are pretty safe bets to make the team: Juan Minaya, Gregory Infante, Nate Jones, Joakim Soria and Luis Avilan. Though Hector Santiago was just recently acquired on a minor league deal, he’s really the only long man of the group, and he could sub in if there’s an injury to a starting pitcher. That leaves two spots between the group of Aaron Bummer, Danny Farquhar, Jace Fry, Jose Ruiz and Thyago Vieira — not to mention guys signed to minor league deals like Xavier Cedeno, Jeanmar Gomez and Bruce Rondon.

Bummer had a 4.50 ERA in 30 big league games last year. Farquhar had a 4.40 ERA in 15 games. Vieira has gotten attention as a flame-thrower, but he’s got just one big league game under his belt, something that might or might not matter to the rebuilding White Sox. Guys like Gomez, who has 40 career saves including 37 just two years ago, and Rondon, who had multiple shots at the Detroit Tigers’ closing job in the past, could vault themselves into the mix as potential midseason trade candidates.

Then there's the question of which of those guys will be Rick Renteria's closer. Minaya had closing duties after most of the bullpen was traded away last summer. He picked up nine saves and posted a 4.11 ERA in his final 17 appearances of the campaign. Look to Soria, though, a veteran with plenty of closing experience from his days with the Kansas City Royals. If he's given the opportunity to close and succeeds, he could fetch an intriguing return package in a potential deadline deal.

But now it's game time in Arizona.

“The fun part of playing the game of baseball is playing the game of baseball," Renteria said earlier this week. "We prepare. I think they all enjoy what they’re doing in terms of their preparation. They take it seriously, they focus. But ultimately like everything that we do in life, I guess it’s a test. And the games are a test for us on a daily basis. And how we are able to evaluate them and take advantage of the opportunities that we have to see them in a real game situation is certainly helpful for us.”