Cubs

Cubs: What to watch for in the second half

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Cubs: What to watch for in the second half

If you have enough imagination, you can envision Albert Almora and Jorge Soler playing together for a long time, turning Wrigley Field into a destination for October baseball, not just concerts, international soccer friendlies and afternoons in the sun.

On Wednesday, the Cubs officially announced the signing of Almora, the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein administration. The team said the 18-year-old outfielder would be reporting to the teams complex in Mesa, Ariz.

A few hours later, Almora posted a message on his Twitter account hyping the 30 million Cuban defector: Please follow my new roommate @jorgesoler24 let's get him to 1000 followers!!!! beast.

If only Ron Santo and Billy Williams were on Twitter back in San Antonio in 1959.

The big narrative is that prospects like Almora and Soler are supposed to be part of the homegrown core, starring alongside Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. But that best-case scenario is years away, and right now the Cubs are 33-52 and flirting with the worst record in baseball and franchise history.

Day-to-day, youll hear things like this: Someone in the pressbox wondering if the proper AP style for crapshow is one word or two. Thats how eternal trade candidate Matt Garza described his first half.

So once the All-Star break ends, whats left to watch between here and Oct. 3? A viewers guide for the next 77 games:

Worst. Team. Ever?

The Cubs have to go 27-50 the rest of the way to avoid matching the franchise record for losses (103), which was put up by teams in 1962 and 1966 featuring Santo and Williams. But that label doesnt reflect the very low expectations heading into this season, the high-character guys in the clubhouse and the professional environment created by first-year manager Dale Sveum and his coaching staff.

Everybody is onboard with the manager, All-Star Bryan LaHair said. Hes running the ship and I think everybodys accepting the decisions he makes. Ive played on a lot of teams where not everybodys onboard (and) sometimes thats the most important thing. But theres definitely a good chemistry in the clubhouse.

We ran out every single ball this year 100 percent and thats tough to do. But were doing it, and I think were heading in the right direction.

Rizzo Watch

Teammates have enjoyed making fun of Rizzo and the media stakeouts by his locker, but in his own way, hes still managed to blend in and earn their respect. The 22-year-old first baseman has gone 17-for-48 (.354) with four homers and nine RBI in 12 games since his promotion from Triple-A Iowa. The Cubs believe hes here to stay.

The thing that stands out to me the most is just how calm he is, veteran outfielder Reed Johnson said. Hes not going to get too up and too down, and thats really what you need in this game because theres so much failure.

Hes going to go through a stretch where things arent going his way. Having that attitude where its just even keel whether hes going good or going bad is exactly what you need to stick around for a long time.

Trade bait

As well as the Cubs played heading into the All-Star break, winning nine of their last 13 games, there was also the sense that this team could look completely different after the July 31 deadline. Moving Ryan Dempster who could make one or two more starts to prove hes healthy before heading to a contender figures to be the first priority.

But Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will listen to just about any idea, and almost no one is untouchable outside of Rizzo and Castro and probably Jeff Samardzija. Teams needing help behind the plate (Geovany Soto), in the bullpen (Carlos Marmol) or off the bench (Johnson and Jeff Baker) may be calling. The Cubs dont have to trade Garza, who remains under club control through 2013.

Ian Stewarts season is probably over, but the third baseman summed it up when a fan asked about the general feeling for the second half during one of his rapid-fire sessions on Twitter (the definitive source for updates on his wrist surgery): Well, if we don't trade all our pitching away, the feeling might be ok.

Ozzie and Big Z

The Cubs kicked in more than 15 million last winter so the Miami Marlins would take on Carlos Zambrano, who wanted to play for Ozzie Guillen, his old friend from Venezuela. Both franchises were undergoing makeovers, and the Marlins are now 41-44 and stuck in fourth place in the National League East. They return to Wrigley Field for a three-game series next week that might as well be the Super Bowl for the Chicago media.

Then again, everyone expected it to be a circus when the Cubs went to Marlins Park in April for Guillens first game back after his suspension for making those Fidel Castro comments. That storm passed very quickly, but you never know with Ozzie and Big Z. Their reality show The Franchise hit Showtime on Wednesday night.

Ricketts vs. City Hall

Perhaps Guillen who always has something to (bleeping) say about Wrigley Field can jump back into politics and broker a deal between chairman Tom Ricketts and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The Super PAC stories about owner Joe Ricketts, the attack ads against Barack Obama and what it all means for the presidential campaign came at the worst possible time for the Cubs, who have been trying to lobby for help renovating their ancient stadium.

Walking around Kauffman Stadium this week, you were reminded that theres almost no chance Wrigley Field could host an All-Star Game without serious upgrades to handle the crush of international media, and the demands for amenities from the 1-percent types. That doesnt mean taxpayers should get the bill for a three-day party, but the renovation would be a game-changer.

Cooperstown

Santos Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be July 22. Cubs officials, WGN representatives and generations of fans will be traveling to upstate New York for the weekend. People around the Cubs dont need an excuse to start telling Santo stories, and they still crack up at the memories.

Santo was a tough-as-nails ballplayer, a one-of-kind voice on the radio and a tireless rainmaker for juvenile diabetes research. The only disappointment is that he wont be up there on stage next to Barry Larkin and all the other Hall of Famers.
The future

The Cubs system is thin in pitching, and most of the intriguing prospects are at the lower levels. Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters are the two September call-ups that could move the needle. The two former first-round picks still have things to prove at Iowa.

Jackson has an .833 OPS and can run and play the outfield, but hes struck out 122 times in 318 at-bats. Vitters, a Pacific Coast League All-Star, has to answer questions about his defense at third base.

Its not necessarily difficult to keep the future in mind, Epstein said. We dont have much of a choice. We have a plan for the long haul that were obviously building for I dont necessarily see that theres any (other) option. We got to scratch and claw and fight to be as competitive as we can right now, and then build toward improving.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.