Bulls

Cubs make it official, sign Soler to nine-year deal

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Cubs make it official, sign Soler to nine-year deal

Glenn Braggs was so powerful, he once snapped his bat off at the handle following through on a swing. The ex-outfielder for Milwaukee and Cincinnati had plenty of upper body strength, enough to make his bat-breaking abilities a reality instead of an urban legend.

In terms of body type, Braggs was the name Cubs manager Dale Sveum came up with when asked about Jorge Soler, who the Cubs officially signed to a nine-year deal on Saturday.

"You can probably go on and on about the body type and everything like that, like a Glenn Braggs-type," Sveum said. "You see his body and the size and that kind of strength at a young age, it's pretty impressive. Hopefully it all translates into a huge, productive player at this level."

Soler is years away from the major leagues, and general manager Jed Hoyer wouldn't even estimate when the 20-year-old will begin playing in games in the Cubs' minor league system. Soler will begin his journey with the Cubs in Mesa, Ariz., as part of "his own version of spring training."

Getting Soler up to speed on the diamond is only half the battle for the Cubs. Getting the native of Cuba adjusted to the United States, with its different culture and language, is a priority for the organization.

"I think we have to do a really good job focusing on his assimilation," Hoyer said.
"For any player coming from Cuba, this is a lot different, and we have to understand that and we have to take it slow with him and realize that professional baseball's hard for any player, let alone someone that's coming from a completely different culture."

The Cubs have plenty of Cuban influence within the organization, from VP of player personnel Oneri Fleita to player developmentinternational scouting coordinator Alex Suarez to 20-year-old lefty Gerardo Concepcion, who's currently pitching for Single-A Peoria. Soler, who doesn't have any family in the country yet, won't be alone, whether he's in Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Florida, Tennessee or Iowa.

But despite his blue-chip prospect status and major-league contract, Soler won't race from state to state as he works his way through the Cubs' farm system -- that is, unless he earns it.

"We're going to develop him the same way we develop anyone, but obviously a little different care with a Cuban player," Hoyer said. "He has to prove himself level to level, we're not going to try to speed him through the minors. There's no reason to do that. He has to prove himself like anyone else does. We're going to treat him that way."

Hoyer wouldn't go as far as Sveum in matching Soler to a current or former player. But he did mention that Soler may not stay where the Cubs start him on the field.

"I won't comp him out," Hoyer said. "I think you'll be really impressed when you see him physically. He's a huge person, very big man. Right now, he moves really well. We're going to start him out in right field. He could end up moving at some point ... because he is that big."

While Hoyer was never scared a deal wouldn't get done with Soler, he did appear relieved to complete the signing with only a few days to spare before the July 2 cutoff date. Soler's signing, which Hoyer joked "wasn't the best-kept secret of all time," was initially reported 19 days ago. While the process took a while, the Cubs are just happy to have Soler in the fold.

"We think he provides a ton of power potential for us," Hoyer said. "It's obviously a significant commitment for us, but we feel like he fits very well into what we're trying to do. He's the right age, the right talent, and we're excited to finally get him started here."

NBA Draft Tracker: Arizona C DeAndre Ayton

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: Arizona C DeAndre Ayton

With college teams heading into conference play, momentum is starting to build for Arizona center Deandre Ayton as a potential No. 1 pick in next June's draft.

Ayton already has an NBA body at 7-foot-1, 250 pounds and he's a lot more agile than most young big men. Watching his recent game against Texas A&M, Ayton showed the kind of footwork and explosiveness that will impress scouts and general managers. He doesn't have the Hakeem Olajuwon-like moves of a Joel Embiid, but he's already got the basic NBA post move skill set, including a jump hook and up-and-under package. Ayton exploded for 29 points and 18 rebounds in a win over Alabama on December 9, making 12 of 18 shots.

Ayton is already a force on the defensive end with his quick leaping ability allowing him to alter shots in the paint, and he has a nice touch from the outside, hitting just under 70 percent of his free throws while also venturing out to the 3-point line to attempt a couple shots.

Where does he fit for the Bulls? Robin Lopez is under contract for another season and the Bulls also have three more guaranteed years of seldom-used Cristiano Felicio. Still, all that could change by season's end, with Lopez a potential trade candidate for a contending team looking to add another quality big man. Ayton's size and athleticism could be attractive to a Bulls’ team that's already identified three young starters going forward in Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, especially since the power forward position is overloaded right now with Markkanen, Bobby Portis and Niko Mirotic. 

At this point early in the college season, Marvin Bagley and Ayton probably rank first and second on most teams’ draft boards, followed by Slovenian guard Luka Doncic and Missouri forward Michael Porter, who's out for the season because of a back injury. 

Bagley is the hot name among NBA scouts, but don't be surprised if Ayton gets consideration for the No. 1 overall pick next June. The NBA might be a point guard league right now, but the influx of quality young centers like Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic suggests the big man is still a valuable commodity.

For Mitch Trubisky, key ball security extends well beyond just third downs

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USA TODAY

For Mitch Trubisky, key ball security extends well beyond just third downs

John Fox has mentioned Mitch Trubisky’s third-down passing on more than one occasion, and not simply as a stroke of what his staff has done in the way of player development as a coaching decision of tectonic-plate degree looms. The fact is that third-down passing is a defining measure of an NFL quarterback; as Loggains stated, it’s where quarterbacks earn their money, and by extension, make it possible for a lot of other folks to earn theirs.

But it’s far bigger than only third downs. Case in point: Trubisky completed 25 of his 32 passes at Cincinnati. All of those passes came during the Bears’ first nine (of 11) possessions. Significantly, the Bears had at least one first down on every one of those possessions, and more than one on seven of the nine.

Meaning: The offense sustained drives and the defense was able to recover on the sideline. That would comprise two-thirds of “complimentary football” the way it’s designed.

(It also did not hurt that every drive on which the Bears didn’t draw a penalty, with the exception of the one ended by halftime, the Bears scored a touchdown. Probably just coincidence…but…maybe not…)

Putting all of this in the broader context of Trubisky’s development, the self-professed gunslinger has thrown zero interceptions in six of his nine games, none in four of the last five. That points to the rookie being schooled hard in ball security, something that has been a hallmark of quarterbacks under coordinator Dowell Loggains’ auspices. Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler in 2015 played with a level of ball security at or among the best of their careers.

Trubisky’s 1.8 percent interception rate overall is the larger point. As mentioned in this space and elsewhere previously, coaches aren’t going to “breed” Trubisky’s core aggressiveness out of him by drilling “ball security” into his head.

And while the concept is simple enough, implementing it isn’t. For all of his meteoric success before his season-ending knee injury, Deshaun Watson was being picked on 3.9 percent of his throws. Cutler has reverted to his career base course (3.2 percent) while Trubisky keeping his throws out of harm’s way percentage-wise better than all of Matthew Stafford (1.9), Russell Wilson (2.3), Matt Ryan (2.6) or Ben Roethlisberger (2.6).

Maybe it’s “generational:” Jared Goff (1.4) and Carson Wentz (1.6) seem to have been schooled the same direction. And how’s that working for them?

Marcus Mariota is having his worst (by his reckoning) NFL season, with 14 interceptions making him so testy that his Mom yelled at him for being grumpy to reporters while discussing his play.

Key to Bears defeating Detroit

The obvious is how well the offense and Trubisky control the football without turning the football over and without self-destructing with penalties that put them behind the sticks. It’s not a sure-fire formula; the Bears didn’t turn the ball over vs. San Francisco and had half the number of penalties assessed as the 49ers and still took incompetence to epic levels. But it is a foundation starting point.

Actually, it’s more than that where the Detroit Lions are concerned.

Detroit has lost three of the four games in which its opponents didn’t give them at least one turnover.    

Stopping the run is a standard “key,” but in the Lions case, they don’t run the ball much anyway. They are last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (76.3) and yards per attempt (3.3). Nine different individuals, including Jordan Howard, average more per game than the Lions. They did win the only two games in which they rushed for more than 100 yards (but those were against the Giants and Browns, so those don’t count).

But Detroit is 7-6 overall without any appreciable rushing offense. So stopping the run, while always a factor, isn’t necessarily a game-changer vs. the Lions.

Ball security is. Keeping Matthew Stafford off the field, as it is with most elite quarterbacks, is everything. Stafford is tied for second for taking sacks (39) and is even taking them at a concerning rate of one every 13 pass plays – statistically significantly higher than nearly every other top passer – and he is still passing to a rating of 97.9, good enough for No. 8 in the NFL.

So getting after Stafford helps. Stopping the run helps. Forcing takeaways helps. But the only element that directly correlates to upending the Lions is not so much creating turnovers as avoiding ones of your own.