Bears

Cubs in position to be dealmakers

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Cubs in position to be dealmakers

MESA, Ariz. The front office must be prepared for disaster. So while it seems like a surplus, just remember the mood 12 months ago, long before sweeping changes hit Clark and Addison.

Last year the Cubs felt pretty good about the rotation at this point, general manager Jed Hoyer said this week during a session with beat writers. It kind of blew up.

The Cubs were toast once Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner were injured during the first week of last season. Braden Looper, Todd Wellemeyer and Carlos Silva (blah, blah, blah) turned out to be nonfactors.

So you can analyze what the Cubs might do at the crossroads with Matt Garza trade him or extend him and wonder if Wells or Chris Volstad will be a long man making around 2.7 million.

Travis Wood appears ticketed for Triple-A Iowa, and Rodrigo Lopez has quietly put together a nice spring that has kept him in the picture. It doesnt necessarily mean the Cubs will make a deal.

I feel like whenever you think you have pitching depth dont ever really talk about it out loud, because you dont, Hoyer said. So, yeah, in theory, on paper (thats) right. But things usually have a way of working out.

Nothings guaranteed two weeks from Opening Day. But Jeff Samardzija looks like a lock for the rotation. In Hoyers words, hes grabbed that competition by the throat.

Decision time is coming soon, particularly for the final spots in the bullpen, and things will begin to come into focus after Wednesdays off-day. The Cubs will have to listen and see whats out there.

For the most part, GMs dont call around too much until the end, because they realize everyones assessing, Hoyer said. There will be a lot of phone calls made around the next 10 days or so, because I think everyone has an area or two theyd look to improve or a guy (who) they liked in the offseason (now becomes) available.

I wouldnt be surprised if we made a move, but I also think we have the pieces in place that we wouldnt need to. But, yes, well certainly be active in those conversations and I dont think wed be doing our job if we werent.

The Cubs have room in the budget to add an impact player or two, and Theo Epstein has said that he hopes to be buyers, not sellers, at the trade deadline.

The president scaled back spending on the on-field product and invested in technology and expanding what had been perhaps the smallest front office in baseball. The baseball operations department has gone from around 90 employees to more than 120.

Our total major-league payroll will be a little under where it was last year, Hoyer acknowledged. But we sort of left some flexibility so we can make some moves over the course of the season if we need to.

The bill for the big-league team will be around 112 million, according to sources, and include the roughly 15 million the Cubs are paying the Miami Marlins to take on Carlos Zambrano, the 5 million payment on Carlos Penas pillow contract and Silvas 2 million buyout.

The projected Opening Day roster will cost around 90 million, a relatively modest amount for a franchise that Forbes found has risen 14 percent in value during the past year to 879 million.

In its annual Major League Baseball survey released on Wednesday, Forbes ranked only the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox ahead of the Cubs in terms of overall worth.

Epsteins explicit goal is to build a sustainable team that will be playing deep into October every year. So the Cubs arent going to rush top prospects Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson to Wrigley Field. They will take the long view and place a high value on years of club control.

But the Arizona sunshine fuels optimism, and Hoyers anything can happen attitude can be traced back to rotation depth. At the moment, the Cubs dont seem to be inclined to take away from this strength and be exposed to a potentially huge weakness.

Were going to throw a good starting pitcher at the other team every night, Hoyer said. When you break camp every year, you want to win the World Series. Obviously, thats your goal. But I dont see any reason why we cant be incredibly competitive this year.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”