Cubs

Hicks is better than advertised

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Hicks is better than advertised

OK, it's a foregone conclusion. Case closed. Everybody agrees. No debate whatsoever. All precincts have reported. Let the post-election party begin. No, this has nothing to do with the presidential race. It's all about Mr. Basketball and the winner is...Simeon's Jabari Parker.

Parker will be the first junior chosen since Illinois' player of the year award was introduced in 1981.

But what about Tony Hicks?

"Nobody in the state has had a better season than Tony Hicks, with the exception of Jabari Parker," St. Rita coach Gary DeCesare said. "He has meant so much to our team. He has kept our team together with all the injuries we had this year.

DeCesare may be biased, of course, but he might be right. Hicks is averaging 26 points per game against a bone-crusher schedule that includes four nationally ranked teams. He has had five 30-point games, eight 20-point games, is shooting 49-percent from the floor and 44.3 from beyond the three-point line.

In St. Rita's toughest games, the 6-foot-2 senior scored 26 points against New York's Christ the King, 31 and 17 in two victories over Catholic League rival De La Salle and 22 against St. Ignatius. On Saturday, the Mustangs (14-8) will test highly regarded New Trier.

Hicks is a good human-interest story, too. He has a 3.6 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale, scored 27 on his ACT, ranks No. 60 in a class of 165 and is committed to the University of Pennsylvania.

"I have had a lot of coaches from BCS conferences who have watched our games and said to me that they missed the boat on Hicks, that they should have recruited him," DeCesare said. "If he continues his growth, he'll have a great career in the Ivy League. He could play in the Big 10. But Penn did their homework and Tony has no regrets. He'll get a chance to play great basketball and get a great education, too."

DeCesare said Division I colleges aren't the only ones who "missed the boat" on Hicks. "Scouting services didn't do their homework, either. The system isn't right. People listen to people who don't know anything about the game. Tony still is vastly underrated. He hasn't got his props for this year," the coach said.

One scouting service doesn't rank Hicks among the top 20 seniors in Illinois. But the same service ranks Hicks' teammate, A.J. Avery, who hasn't played this season because of a broken wrist, at No. 18. Go figure.

Recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye rank Hicks among the top 15 players in the state in the class of 2012. "He is our choice as Player of the Year in the Catholic League. In our minds, he is an ideal mid-major recruit and a perfect fit for Penn. He has great scoring capability, is a tough-as-nails defender, a leader on the floor and a super young man to boot," they said.

Hicks was determined to rank among the best players in the state this season. He averaged 12 points per game as a sophomore and 16 as a junior. His goal was 20 as a senior. He didn't dream about averaging 26. But he was totally focused on basketball.

"He wanted to be one of the best players in the state this year--and he has done that," DeCesare said.

"I'm not surprised," Hicks said. "The coach preaches hard work and it is paying off. I never thought he would have as much faith in me to take as many shots as I take and get as many minutes as I have played.

"But I still think I am underrated. I try not to focus on it. But I feel if I am playing as I am, people will notice. I guess some people don't think I'm that good, until they see the statistics sheet.

"It is kind of funny to me. I know the local players real well and they give me respect. But the coaches and scouting services don't. I don't think about it. It is more important that the players think I am good and give me respect."

Hicks, who recently surpassed the 1,000-point milestone for his career, worked hard over the summer and accumulated 10 scholarship offers, including Penn, Loyola, South Florida, George Mason, Ohio and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In October, he chose Penn.

"I knew that was where I wanted to go after my first visit to the campus," he said. "The atmosphere felt like St. Rita. There was a lot of support, history and a great education."

He had a choice because more than a few college recruiters recognized his talent. "I am a completely different player from last year. Some people took me out of my game real easy last year. Now I have a feeling that no one can stop me offensively," he said.

"I took the game more seriously over the summer, knowing what I had to do to be better. I went to the recreation gym around the corner from my house every day, for 3-4 hours every day, all by myself, shooting, working on my ball-handling, working on my moves.

"I didn't have a set routine. I just picked up the ball and started working out. I didn't make any changes in my shot, just more repetitions. Everything has gotten that much better, including my pull-up jumper from 15 feet. I never worked so hard. I have a lot more confidence than last year."

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”

Jose Abreu has already begun mentoring Luis Robert

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USA TODAY

Jose Abreu has already begun mentoring Luis Robert

As the White Sox have added young Cuban stars in the making in Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert, Jose Abreu's long-term role on the team has shifted.

The 31-year-old first baseman has been looked at as something of a mentor for the two young Cubans. He seems to be delivering on that so far.

Abreu picked up Moncada from the airport when he first was called up to the White Sox last July. Now he's helping Robert in the batting cage.

The Cuban trio is expected to play a big part of the White Sox future in the coming years. 

Robert has already stated his goal of making it to the majors this year to join Abreu and Moncada, but that may be an overly ambitious goal. Either way, plenty of eyes will be on him throughout 2018 as he marches towards the White Sox roster and his Cuban teammates.