Bears

The critics dont bother Aramis Ramirez

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The critics dont bother Aramis Ramirez

PHOENIX Aramis Ramirez doesnt know how he will be received when he steps into the box at Wrigley Field on April 9 wearing a Milwaukee Brewers uniform. He doesnt really care either.

I have no clue, Ramirez said Saturday. Thats part of baseball. Ive been booed before when I left Pittsburgh. Its been nine years and every time I go back I still get booed. I dont know how theyre going to take it. I dont really worry about it. I cant control that stuff.

Ramirez never showed much emotion, which is why it was so surprising that he nearly fought Carlos Silva the last time the Cubs drove over to Maryvale Baseball Park. It was a bad image to project, a team unraveling after the first inning of the fourth game in spring training.

You certainly cant draw a direct line to Mike Quade and Jim Hendry getting fired.

But in the 12 months since that dugout altercation, you can look back and think the cracks were beginning to show for a first-year manager and the long-time general manager, who was close with Ramirez. The mix wasnt quite right for a team that would finish in fifth place again.

New president Theo Epstein made it clear to Ramirez agent last fall that the Cubs planned to go young and werent interested in a 16 million mutual option for 2012, or renegotiating a new deal. So Ramirez got his money from the Brewers, a three-year 36 million insurance policy against losing Prince Fielder.

In the past, Ramirez has said that you cant rebuild in big market, that you need a name product to fill 40,000 seats every game. How long will Cubs fans really stay patient with Epstein?

Thats a good question, Ramirez said. Im not a fan. Im a player. I dont know. Its going to take time, hopefully sooner than later. Hes been successful before in Boston. Im sure hes got a good plan. Hes got something working right now.

For Ramirez, it was always just business. He was their third baseman for eight consecutive Opening Days beginning in 2004; the Cubs had seven different ones in the eight years before that. Ian Stewart will be there April 5.

How come Ramirez never really connected with the fans the way, say, Tony Campana did as a rookie extra outfielder last season?

Because Im slow, man, they like the fast guys, Ramirez said with a smile. No, I dont know. I cant really point at anything. I just tried to do my job, and I think for the most part I did it. Thats all you can ask from a player. I cant really answer that question.

Ramirez hit 239 homers for the Cubs which ranks sixth all-time in franchise history and drove in more than 800 runs during his time on the North Side. He played in the Bartman game in 2003 and was a force on teams that won back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008.

The Ramirez critics questioned his hustle, desire and defense. The loudest may have been television analyst Bob Brenly, who managed the Arizona Diamondbacks to a World Series title in 2001 and is appreciated by viewers for his candor.

I dont care, Ramirez said. Hes a broadcaster. He should just worry about calling the game. Hes not a coach. Hes not a manager. He should just call the game. The coaches, the managers, the GMs they should take care of the other stuff.

There has been a lot of talk about changing the culture at Wrigley Field. Ramirez will turn 34 this summer and doesnt have time for that. He wants to win a ring.

The only difference is these guys won 96 games last year, Ramirez said. Its different because theyre ready to win now. Theos got different plans. They want to go young. Here, theyre going in a different direction.

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?