Cubs

Frankie O: Hocus Pocus!

Frankie O: Hocus Pocus!

By Frankie O
CSNChicago.comTheres always the struggle in life, at least from my perspective, for some to understand what they have and what they see. Thankfully, many who suffer from this affliction often frequent my workplaces and this leads to many interesting discussions. Giving an illusion often helps in misperceptions. Say youre an old, weight challenged bartender, (Im just saying!), if you wear all black and turn the lights down as far as possible when starting your shift, you all of the sudden look much thinner, younger and hipper! Of course, we all know that is NOT the reality. Its an illusion!For Chicago sports fans I could take this analogy in many different directions, but for now well focus on the Bears. The Bears are one of the premier franchises of the NFL. Their place in NFL history is as real as it gets. They are part of the fabric of Chicago. This is true of a lot of pro football teams, but even more so here.It is because of this that the populace longs for a team that attains its rightful glory. But for as long as Ive lived here, 1995, that glory has been elusive. The Bears have reached the playoffs in only 4 of those 17 seasons. I know for a fact that has driven the masses crazy. Each of those appearances ultimately led to an untimely demise. Or was it? Upon my arrival, and some would say not so coincidentally, the Bears went 35-61 in the nextsix seasons. This led to the arrival of GM Jerry Angelo prior to the 2001 season. From his history in Tampa Bay as a talent evaluator, we were led to believe he would build the foundation from which the Bears would succeed for years to come. The 13-3 regular season record in his first season only raised the expectations. But, in a sign of things to come, that team was smoked, at home, in the playoffs by the Philadelphia Eagles 33-19. I was among the naysayers that said while that season was fun, it wasnt real. That team was as lucky as any I had ever seen, and as happens often in sports, was found out when it mattered most. That team went 16-32 over the nextthree seasons so as to cement the point. The 2003 season also allowed Angelo to un-arrange his forced marriage to head coach Dick Jauron, which was unfortunately lengthened due to the 2001 fluke season and subsequent mandatory contract extension, and bring in his guy, Lovie Smith. (Quick aside: I had the pleasure, during a slow evening at the bar, to be invited to sit and chat at a table with Jauron and a childhood friend of his who was in to visit. He was as polite, nice and articulate as anyone I have ever met. Maybe a bit too nice to be an NFL coach, but he has held a position on a staff or as the head man for 27 straight years so maybe there is a place for nice guys. I always thought he got a bad rap here, but I guess thats personal. Ultimately, head coaches should be judged on results. Nothing else. Nothing personal.) This concluded a ten year stretch with a record of 64-96 and 1 meager short-lived playoff appearance. Monsters? No! Scary? Yes!Then in the first glory years since the 1985 team that we REPEATEDLY hear about, the Bears went 24-8 over the 05 and 06 seasons, winningtwo division titles and reaching the Super Bowl following the 06 season. These teams were largely built through the drafting of Angelo and some accentuation through free-agency. But twothings here: No. 1- They did not win the Super Bowl. Excuse make all you want, but that is, and always will be, the only thing that matters.No.2 - For all the talent on the defensive side, those teams were never taken seriously due to the quarterback, just YouTube Dennis Green to get that point. A matchup of Rex Grossman vs. Peyton Manning would be asking a lot of the great Ravens or Steeler defenses of the past, let alone the Bears, and proved their undoing. Good Rex- Bad Rex. The fall-off to mediocrity was not a huge surprise, but angered the faithful to no end. Their appetite had been whetted and they wanted more. At this point, Angelo made his boldest move, the trade for Jay Cutler. As I wrote at the time I saw the two sides of this move. Angelos understanding that he needed a franchise quarterback and to buy time and job security for himself. If you persuade ownership to pay a kings ransom to acquire a difference maker, they need to keep you around, at least for a while, to see it through, dont they? Smart move on both counts. I have supported the Cutler move here from the beginning. My contention is that he has NEVER been afforded any, or proper, support. The offensive talent around him, minus Matt Forte, is suspect at best. More importantly, the offensive system employed by Mike Martz never played to Cutler strengths. I would think this to be a fatal flaw and it was, for Angelo and Martz. The additional time afforded Angelo, and to Smith, turned into the ill-fated joy ride of 2010. Whereas I thought 2001 was a fluke, it had nothing on 2010. Playing 4 back-up QBs can go a long way to making your record look better than it should be. Having the rest of a mediocre NFC fall apart affording you a week off and a chance to play one of the worst playoff teams ever for a spot in the NFC championship game was a string of luck for the ages. The thing is, you have to take advantage of your luck as it occurs, not think of it as a harbinger for the future. The Caleb Hanie mirage in the title game turned out to be another nail in the Angelo coffin. Not that I, or almost anyone else that I have talked to or listened to, understood this at the time. But the point is, we were told that this was a team that could compete with any in the NFL. Really? An NFL season offers us many things to see if we want to watch. What has become apparent in this NFL, is that you need the ability to score from anywhere on the field at any time. Create fear in your opponent. Its Al Daviss dream run amok. But the only time the Bears strike this fear is when Devin Hester is lining up to receive a kick.As far as offensive weapons go, this team brings a knife to a gun fight almost every week. Every rule change made in this league over the last twenty years has favored the offense and offensive football. I like dominant defensive play as much as the next guy, but is that type of team going to exist again within these rules?Even Sandra Bullock knows you need a left tackle, so much so that she made a movie about it. But the one constant since Cutler got here, if not before, is the offensive line or lack of.
Angelos final foray into free agency brought the three Cowboys. Marion Barber: Played well then got hurt, big surprise. But not before mistakes that costtwo ballgames. Roy Williams: The big wideout to go with their smurfs. Has anyone else had a career where he had one good year, then did nothing since, for years, and still acts like hes all-pro? Awful! Sam Hurd: I dont blame Angelo completely for hiring a would-be drug kingpin, but didnt their security team know anything about this guy?The lack of offensive talent on this team, especially when compared to the rest of the division, is startling. Are we really to believe that bringing in Roy Williams would take the receiver talent on this team to the level of the Packers? The Lions? The Vikings?!! So that brings us to the events of this Tuesday. The reactions Ive heard at the bar or in the media, is the surprise at the fact that the move was actually made and the fact that Lovie survived. Im stunned that the move to fire Angelo was made with two years left on his current contract. But Im in total agreement that this team is regressing in the division, talent wise, under his watch.Lovie can only play the guys he has. As Ive also stated here recently, Lovie is starting to grow on me. (Stop that!) His demeanor is who he is. I like the even keel nature he displays, although, I wonder if his tight-to- the- vest manner would allow him to command an aggressive offense. This fallacy that you need to get off the bus running is not going to win this division, or a title. You eventually need to have the ability to throw. (Green Bay and New England arent exactly warm-weather cities and they both threw for well over 5000 yards. Why cant the Bears?) This means more talent on the offensive side of the ball. A large price was paid to bring in a quarterback of championship caliber. But it doesnt stop there. Angelo was right that he needed someone of Cutlers ability, but he didnt see it through and build the offense around him to let him flourish. Ultimately, that was his undoing. Its not like he couldnt have considering how far the team is under the salary cap. It didnt seem like there was a sense of urgency in the front office to provide the necessary talent to close the gap, on Green Bay especially.And lets not forget that the vaunted defense gave up 350 yards and over 21 points a game. That is not dominant.I applaud the ownership, now led by Chairman George McCaskey, at least publically, to make such a bold move. That most of the media is nit-picking is missing the point. This is a first act. It says that failure is not an option. I havent heard that out of the McCaskeys since Ive lived here, have you? A new path has been chosen. Of course this type of bold action being taken, being so foreign, may take some time to be completely done right. So be it. While Lovie may have gained power here as some suggest, I think he acquired a target squarely affixed to himself. Put up or shut up. The parameter put on a new GM was to keep Lovie for next year, not thetwo years left on his contract. The onus is on him to FINALLY accept responsibility for what happens on the offensive side of the ball, talent-wise and scheme-wise. He too needs to accept that the offense needs to be tailored to his franchise QB, not the other way around. The illusion for many was that this Bears team was the one that was 7-3 coming off of a NFC championship game defeat. The reality is that this team, even if Cutler and Forte stayed healthy, was not in the upper echelon of the NFL. All you need to do is watch the playoffs this year to realize that. What happened here is something larger. The easy thing to do would have been to let everyone come back and blame injuries for this seasons failure. That was not the case. Perhaps spurred on by the bold moves that accompanied Rocky Wirtz taking over the Blackhawks and the Ricketts familys ownership and change of status quo with the Cubs (even if it took a little longer than hoped), the McCaskey family had to give its blessing for the bloodletting that occurred this week. Lets hope they fully understand that they need to follow through. Not long after he became Chairman, I heard a lot of discussion on the radio about the time that George McCaskey spent working in the Bears ticket office, that the experience allowed him to connect with the fans that funded the team with their support. You hear this speculation and wonder if it would really make a difference. Well in the first time many of us saw or heard him talk about his vision for his team, his actions spoke louder than any of us could have imagined. Lets hope he has the will to go the distance. Lets hope we can believe what we are seeing.

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.