Bears

Cubs' top prospects: A first-half review

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Cubs' top prospects: A first-half review

Weve reached the half-way point of the season and it's clear that Chicago is home to two teams with different plans for the second half. The Sox look to make a run at the playoffs and beyond while the Cubs take the next steps in their rebuilding process. Now that the wheels are clearly turning on the Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer machine, lets take a look at whos hot and whos not from the first half of the season.

Iowa Cubs

The Good: This may come as a shock to, well no one, my top performer of the first half is without a doubt Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo came into the season as the number two ranked prospect in the Cubs system according to minorleagueball.com. But early on he catapulted himself head and shoulders above everyone else in the organization. He spent the majority of the first half in Iowa where he was nothing short of spectacular. Rizzo hit .342, launched 23 home runs and drove in 62 runs, all over the course of just 70 games. His towering home runs and infectious attitude caught everyones attention and it was only a matter of time until Rizzo got his shot at the friendly confines. As we all know, the young slugger has not disappointed during his short time in the big leagues, but most of all he has rejuvenated a fan base that had next to nothing to cheer for. Anthony Rizzo is giving Cubs fans a glimpse of the future that they so patiently await.

The Bad: Coming into the 2012 campaign, everyone could agree upon one thing: Brett Jackson was the number one prospect in the entire Cubs organization. This was quickly disproved, and as Rizzo vaulted himself to stardom, Jackson slid somewhere into the shadows and we are still waiting for him to show up. Statistically speaking, Jacksons numbers arent terrible but he is not where everyone expected him to be at the half way mark. He is swinging it at .261 with 12 homers and 37 RBIs. He has also shown exceptional speed swiping 20 bags. All of that is just fine, but neither his numbers nor his play scream call up. The second half of the season may be the most important of Jacksons career. With Rizzo gone, he is back to being the man under the microscope and he has quite a bit to prove. Jackson is in dire need of a few consistent weeks of production at the plate to get everyone back on his bandwagon in a Rizzo-type fashion.
The Watch List: Josh Vitters was ranked number 11 in the system by minorleagueball.com, but he has played well beyond the preseason projections. The Iowa third baseman opened some eyes in the first half with his .302 average and 48 RBIs. The 22-year-old was labeled a contact hitter, but has also seen an enormous spike in his power numbers this season (13 HR.509 SLG.866 OPS). Vitters efforts have not gone unnoticed as he has been selected to the Pacific Coast League All-Star game. At this point in his career, it is Vitters choice whether he wants to be a part of the long term future of the Cubs, and that is why I have him pinned as the Triple A player to watch.
Tennessee Smokies

The Good: Junior Lakes numbers wont take your breath away, but his first half performance should not only be evaluated on paper. If there is one word to describe Lakes 2012 efforts, it would be 'grind'. It hasn't come easy for the Smokies shortstop but he has willed his way to a .286 average. Most importantly, he is sporting a new plate approach that has cut down his strikeout rate while boosting his OBP. Scouts main criticism of the youngster was his free-swinging attitude and it appears as if that has been addressed and fixed. It is important for Lake to continue to work into favorable pitch counts. This will allow him to boost his average into the .300s and keep it there. Everything about Lake suggests he is about to have a break through, it is simply a matter of when.

The Bad: Trey McNutt hasn't been awful, but at the same time, hasn't produced the numbers a top-five prospect should. The right hander is 5-7 with a 4.46 ERA. What is most alarming about McNutt is his inability to work deep into games. He is averaging just less than four innings per start. That is just flat out not going to cut it. If McNutt has any big league aspirations as a starter, he needs to approach the second half with a different game plan, one that involves taking his starts well into the seventh and even eighth innings of games. If he fails to do so, he will have 'bullpen status' written all over him.
The Watch List: My Double A player to watch didnt even crack the Cubs preseason top 25, but Eric Jokisch strongly disagrees with those prognosticators. The southpaw has toed the rubber in both Daytona and Tennessee this season and has taken advantage of his opportunities. Since joining the Smokies, Jokisch is 4-1 with a 3.04 ERA. and is allowing a .198 batting average against. Much has been made of the acquisitions of Alberet Almora and Jorge Soler along with the call up of Anthony Rizzo, but the topic of future arms has gone untouched. Aside from late round draft picks, Jed and Theo have yet to address the need for pitching down the road, which is something they will likely do in the offseason and future drafts. Just make sure you dont remove Eric Jokischs name from the discussions just yet.
Daytona
The Good: Daytona right hander Matt Loosen has been lights out for his club this season. The unlikely prospect was drafted in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft, 700th overall. He currently boasts a 7-3 record and a stingy 2.84 ERA. Loosen has gone about his business quietly, but managed to strikeout nearly a batter per inning. If he continues at this pace, it is likely he will climb the ranks and get an opportunity at a higher level.
The Bad: Ronald Torreyes came into the season as a top 20 prospect in the Cubs organization. The first half has not been kind to Torreyes and the undersized second baseman has slipped from there due to his below-average production. Torreyes was part of the Sean Marshall trade to Cincinnati and was thought to be a solid pickup who hit for good average. The only problem is he isnt. Torreyes is hitting .236 at the half way point. He has nowhere to go but up from here but he has dug himself quite a hole to climb out of.

The Watch List: One Daytona player to watch during the second stanza of the 2012 season is Arismendy Alcantara. The Cubs shortstop has successfully hit the ball to all fields. Initially, Alcantara flew under the radar but his production has become hard to ignore. He is hitting .306 with seven round trippers, 51 RBIs, 46 runs scored and 25 stolen bases. Even more impressively, Alcantara is one of only three players in the Florida State League with 100 or more hits (100). I continue to ask myself if this kid has big league potential and he continues to deliver. The jury is still out but Alcantara is undoubtedly one to keep an eye on.

Peoria

When it comes to the Peoria Chiefs, Javier Baez has been the good, the bad and the one to watch. The Cubs 2011 first round selection is hitting .310 with six homers and 14 RBIs. He also touts an .887 OPS and 14 stolen bases in 15 attempts. My only concern is Baez's ability to deliver day in and day out. He is young, therefore errors of the metal and physical brand are both to be expected. Baez has been white hot at times and arctic cold at others. He has big play ability and I am convinced he will find his way to the north side sometime in the next few years. The physical tools are all there, with the only question being his makeup and approach. If he shows solid maturity, he could justify his high first round selection in the 2011 MLB First Year Player Draft.
Joe Musso contributed to this report.

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.”