Bears

Illinois top five in high school baseball prospects

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Illinois top five in high school baseball prospects

You might have a prior commitment on Super Bowl Sunday but Sean Duncan, executive director and publisher of Lake Forest-based Prep Baseball Report magazine and PrepBaseballReport.com, has invited 60 of the best high school baseball prospects in the Midwest to attend a Super 60 Pro Showcase at the Max in suburban McCook.

This is the 10th year for the event. A year ago, 70 major league scouts showed up for the pre-draft combine that attracted invitation-only players from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Illinois is acknowledged as a basketball state--it has sent more players to the NBA than any region outside southern California--and it also is the leading producer of football talent outside of Texas, Florida, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

But Illinois youngsters play baseball, too.

"Look at the statistics," Duncan said. "Aside from the baseball hotbeds of Georgia, Texas, California and Florida, Illinois has the highest number of players drafted and is one of the leading producers of players in the major leagues.

"It is one of the most heavily recruited areas in the country. The state's top players always go to powerhouse college programs or they are drafted. The perception is that Illinois is a cold-weather state and doesn't produce baseball talent. But that isn't true."

Duncan said that people in the baseball business recognize that Chicago players rank in the upper echelon of all players in the country despite their limitation of not being able to play on a year-round basis. In fact, Duncan pointed out, Chicago is over-recruited. Over 100 Illinois products annually enroll at Division I schools.

The class of 2012, for example, is deep but not extraordinarily top-heavy with big-time talent. "There are a lot of good but not great players. But some have the ability to be great. No one is slotted as a high draft choice," Duncan said.

He rates left-handed pitcher Brett Lilek of Marian Catholic at the top of the class. Lilek, who is committed to Arizona State, has a high ceiling, according to Duncan. He is 6-foot-3 and has a 92 mph fastball. "He can be electric and could go in the first five rounds of the draft," Duncan said.

Duncan also is high on catcher Jason Goldstein of Highland Park, who is committed to Illinois, and right-handed pitcher Kyle Funkhouser of Oak Forest, who is committed to Louisville.

The class of 2012 doesn't compare to the classes of 2005 and 2007, which Duncan rates as the best he has seen since he began evaluating players in 2005. The class of 2005 featured Michael Bowden of Waubonsie Valley, one of the leading pitching prospects in major league baseball who still is trying to earn a spot on the Boston Red Sox' starting rotation.

Bowden is "the best player I ever covered," Duncan said. He was on the cover of the first issue of Prep Baseball Report.

His top 16 list includes Bowden, pitchershortstop Jake Odorizzi (2009) of Highland, outfielder Joe Benson (2006) of Joliet Catholic, pitcher John Ely (2005) of Homewood-Flossmoor, pitcher Ian Krol (2009) of Neuqua Valley, pitcher Mike Foltynewicz (2010) of Minooka, pitcher Zach McAllister (2006) of Illinois Valley Central, first baseballthird baseball Connor Powers (2006) of Benet, pitcher Jake Smolinski (2007) of Rockford Boylan, pitcher Derek Thompson (2011) of Teutopolis, pitcher Casey Crosby (2007) of Kaneland, catcher Jake DePew (2010) of Granite City, pitcheroutfielder Kenny Smalley (2005) of St. Charles North, designated hitter Tim Barry (2011) of Oak Forest, outfielder Casey McMurray (2007) of Lyons and shortstop Dan Brewer (2005) of Lyons.

What about the future? Who is the next Michael Bowden? Or who could be the next Illinois product to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Lou Boudreau, Freddie Lindstrom, Kirby Puckett, Robin Roberts, Red Ruffing, Ray Schalk, Jim Bottomley and Red Schoendienst?

"Simeon has a string of players who are highly touted, the best group since the 1990s with Wes Chamberlain, Jeff Jackson and Shawn Livesay," Duncan said.

The blue chippers are senior catcher Blake Hickman, a 6-foot-4, 190-pounder who is committed to Iowa; left-handed hitting junior outfielder Corey Ray, who is committed to Louisville; and the top-rated prospect in the class of 2014, left-handed hitting outfielder Darius Day.

Duncan, 37, a Deerfield graduate of 1992, played basketball and baseball in high school, majored in English at Pittsburgh, then obtained a masters degree in creative writing at Northwestern. "I wanted to write the great American novel," he said.

He covered high school sports for newspapers in Florida and California, then returned to Chicago in 2001 and covered high school sports for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.

From 2001 to 2005, Duncan and his best friend Todd Fine got together to organize Full Package Athletics, a basketball and baseball training company based in Lake Forest. Duncan started Prep Baseball Report in 2005 under the same umbrella. In 2008, baseball went its way and basketball went its way.

Duncan started in basketball in 2001. He thought he was a basketball guy who wanted a basketball scouting service. He started with the late Mac Irvin and had 150 schools subscribing in the first six months to "The Truth: The Complete Recruiters' Guide To Illinois Basketball."

"I became disenchanted with basketball," he said. "As I went to events, I became acquainted with shoe wards, summer camps, posses of great players, street agents, the scummy world of recruiting. I wondered if all of this wouldn't work in baseball. No one else was doing it at our level. There was such a need for publicity for high school baseball players. There was so little coverage in newspapers but so many kids who want to play at the next level."

So he founded Prep Baseball Report in 2005, then founded the website in 2009. Its mission is to promote high school players to play at the next level and give them a platform through its multimedia avenues. From November to November, 1.4 million viewers visit the website. Over 400 colleges subscribe to the service, online or print. At its major events, 100 or more colleges will attend.

"Baseball is my passion, the sport I love," Duncan said. "I find it cerebral. There is a lot of stuff that more than meets the eye. I am fascinated by the game. Some people think it is slow. But I think there is a lot of stuff that is involved, like a giant chess game from pitch to pitch and batter to batter. I appreciate it.

"You think you know a lot about the game but there is more and more to it, from draft to farm system, like the whole infrastructure of baseball. At Prep Baseball Report, we try to be the authoritative voice at the state level.

"There are other companies out there that are national who cater to the top 4 percent, the high draft choices, but they are few and far between. Look at Illinois. There are 400 to 500 kids who will go on to play at the next level. There are so many Division II and III schools and junior colleges that don't have recruiting budgets of Division I schools and are looking for players.

"If you have a modicum of skill and a desire to play, you can find a place to play at the next level. They should use their athletic gifts to get into a school that they might not normally be able to afford to get into.

"We try to link players to schools, give them a platform to be seen and publicize them. We create a carrot. Even during a recruiting dead period, a college can go online and see a kid at any time."

Duncan recalled in 2010, at a Prep Baseball Report-sponsored indoor junior event during a recruiting dead period in December, an unknown player whom nobody had ever heard of walked in and threw a fastball at 88-90 mph. Within a month, he committed to Kentucky. Amazingly, Kentucky wasn't even at the event. They had seen the youngster on the website.

What about the future?

"We want to have someone in every state representing our brand and serving as an expert at that state level," Duncan said. "Our goal is to have someone in every relevant state--Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Indiana and Wisconsin.

"The hardest part of growth is finding the right people to grow with you. We want to continue to provide a service for kids and help them to achieve their dreams of playing baseball at the next level."

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.”