White Sox

Looking at Red Sox, Cubs see core issues

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Looking at Red Sox, Cubs see core issues

The Cubs see an idealized version of the Boston Red Sox. Last Septembers collapse is out of focus, along with the swings-and-misses on big-ticket free agents like John Lackey and Carl Crawford.

Executives, of course, never bat 1.000, or even come close. Theo Epstein believes hes in the business of being less wrong, that the best you can hope to do on any given transaction is shift the odds from maybe 5050 to almost 5347.

Epsteins primary goal now is to identify core players for the future. Near the end of spring training, the Cubs president of baseball operations said theres a subtext to this season underneath the wins and losses.

That meant 2012 would be a failure if the Cubs didnt develop a few pieces and integrate them onto the major-league roster. Epstein also thought it was essential to establish a culture where young players are welcomed, not picked apart for what they cant do, or viewed as pariahs.

Thats kind of the goal, second baseman Darwin Barney said. You want guys to come in and be able to produce right off the bat, and the only way to do that is to be comfortable (doing) your job (and) be accepted by the veterans.

Barney played with Jacoby Ellsbury, a future All-Star with the Red Sox, at Oregon State University. But the story Barney tells involves David Ortiz and ex-Cubs utility man Bobby Scales, who signed a minor-league deal with Boston in December 2006.

(Bobby) had never been to big-league camp before, Barney recalled. He walks in the clubhouse. Big Papi calls him over and goes: Hey, who are you?

Ortiz asked Scales if he had ever played in the big leagues before, and the answer was no. Ortiz responded: That doesnt matter here. Youre in this clubhouse. Youre on this team. Were going to win a championship this year.

More than reversing the curse, that 2007 World Series title validated Epsteins system. For that Game 4 clincher against the Colorado Rockies, Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia were at the top of the order, Jon Lester got the win and Jonathan Papelbon notched the save. Baseball America graded out the Red Sox as the best drafting team of the decade, a credit to new Cubs scouting executive Jason McLeod.

I always think its part and parcel to building a winning culture, bringing guys up through your own system, having their enthusiasm and (the unknowns), said Bobby Valentine, Bostons first-year manager. Sometimes you get a guy youve seen a long time, you start predicting, and rather than being excited, youre disappointed. Young guys can bring more of the excitement and less of the disappointment.

So while the Cubs appear to be on track for 100-plus losses, the agenda for the rest of this season will look something like this: Restock the system through deadline trades. Promote Anthony Rizzo. Give Brett Jackson a taste.

It will be about getting through to Starlin Castro and pushing him to the next level, and monitoring Jeff Samardzija so he stays at the front of the rotation for years to come. There will be opportunities for people like Travis Wood and Steve Clevenger and Welington Castillo.

Manager Dale Sveum will have to keep the peace, hold everyone accountable and show that he can grow into the job and become the next Terry Francona.

Its never easy, Epstein said. You can talk about a vision and a plan and a theory. And then when you have to get in the trenches day in, day out and suffer through some losses, its really tough. It should be. If it was easy, youd be in the wrong game.

You have to strike a delicate balance, because you dont want to talk too much about the future. You have to have complete respect for what these 25 players are trying to accomplish night in, night out.

And thats one thing I am proud of: Our players are working (and) playing really hard. Its very professional. Even though were not where we want to be in the standings, theyre establishing a nice culture there in the clubhouse.

Thats the environment theyre trying to create for the next wave of Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, Junior Lake, Matt Szczur and players weve never heard of before.

Barney won a state championship in high school, two College World Series titles at Oregon State and a gold medal with Team USA at the 2006 World University Games. A natural shortstop, Ryne Sandberg helped him learn how to play second base while coming up through the Cubs system.

At the age of 26, Barney would like to become a core player here, and make all those intangibles matter.

You felt like you were going to win every game, no matter what, Barney said. You walked into the park and you felt like you had the upper hand, just because you were there in the first place. Its just a swagger.

Thats kind of what you need. You look at a team like the Yankees and why they win every year. They have that professionalism. They have that swagger about them. And thats something that I think we can have here, eventually.

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

GLENDALE, AZ — You don’t need a scale to see that Lucas Giolito lost some weight in the offseason. As he walks around Camelback Ranch, he just seems lighter. These pounds were shedded thanks to a certain label that has been detached from his name and his being.

“Lucas Giolito, number-one pitching prospect in baseball” is no more.

“Definitely. Big time relief. I carried that title for a while,” Giolito told NBC Sports Chicago. “It was kind of up and down. I was (ranked) 1 at one point. I dropped. I always paid attention to it a little bit moving through the minor leagues.”

Which for any young hurler is risky business. The “best pitching prospect” designation can mess with a pitcher’s psyche and derail a promising career. Giolito was walking a mental tightrope reading those rankings, but after making it back to the majors last season with the White Sox and succeeding, the moniker that seemed to follow him wherever he went has now vanished.

“Looking back on it, that stuff is pretty cool," Giolito said. "It can pump you up and make you feel good about yourself, but in the end the question is, what are you going to do at the big league level? Can you contribute to a team? I’m glad that I finally have the opportunity to do that and all that other stuff is in the rear view."

This wasn’t the case when the White Sox acquired Giolito from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton trade in December 2016. When he arrived at spring training last year, he was carrying around tons of extra baggage in his brain that was weighing him down. Questions about his ability and makeup weren’t helping as he tried living up to such high expectations.

“Yeah, I’d say especially with the trade coming off 2016 where I didn’t perform well at all that year," Giolito said. "I got traded over to a new organization, I still have this label on me of being a top pitching prospect while I’m going to a new place, I’m trying to impress people but at the same time I had a lot of things off mechanically I was trying to fix. Mentally, I was not in the best place as far as pitching went. It definitely added some extra pressure that I didn’t deal with well for a while."

How bad was it for Giolito? Here are some of the thoughts that were scrambling his brain during spring training and beyond last season.

“I saw I wasn’t throwing as hard. I was like, ’Where did my velocity go?’ Oh, it’s my mechanics. My mechanics are bad. I need to fix those,” Giolito said. “Then I’m trying to make adjustments. Why can’t I make this adjustment? It compounds. It just builds and builds and builds and can weigh on you a ton. I was 22 turning 23 later in the year. I didn’t handle it very well. I put a lot of pressure on myself to fix all these different things about my performance, my pitching and trying to do it all in one go instead of just relaxing and remembering, ‘Hey, what am I here for? Why do I play the game?’”

Still, pitching coach Don Cooper wanted to see what he had in his young prospect. So last February, he scheduled him to make his White Sox debut against the Cubs in front of a packed house in Mesa.

“It was kind of like a challenge," Giolito said. "They fill the stadium over there. I’m like, ‘Alright here we go."

Giolito gave up one run, three hits, walked one and struck out two in two innings against the Cubs that day.

“I pitched OK," he said. "I think I gave up a home run to Addison Russell. At the same time, I remember that game like I was forcing things. I might have pitched okay, but I was forcing the ball over the plate instead of relaxing, trusting and letting it happen which is kind of my mantra now. I’m saying that all the time, just having confidence in yourself and letting it go.”

A conversation in midseason with Charlotte Knights pitching coach Steve McCatty, suggested by Cooper, helped turn Giolito’s season around. The lesson for Giolito: whatever you have on the day you take the mound is what you have. Don’t force what isn’t there.

Fortunately for Giolito he has extra pitches in his arsenal, so if the curveball isn’t working (which it rarely did when he came up to the majors last season) he can go to his change-up, fastball, slider, etc.

It’s all part of the learning process, both on the mound and off it. Setbacks are coming. Giolito has already had his share. More will be on the way.

“You want to set expectations for yourself. You want to try and achieve great goals,” he said. “At the same time, it is a game of failure. There’s so much that you have to learn through experience whether that be success or failure. Especially going through the minor leagues. There’s so much that you have to learn and a lot of it is about development. It’s a crazy ride for sure.”

Boys Basketball Playoffs begin on busy week of High School Lites

Boys Basketball Playoffs begin on busy week of High School Lites

High School Lites is down to the final week of the regular season in local high school hoops as the Class 3A and 4A schools finish up conference play. The boys basketball playoffs have also started as the Class 1A and Class 2A regional championships will be played on Friday night.

The girls basketball Class 1A and 2A state semifinals will also be featured. You can catch all of those games on NBC Sports Chicago on Friday beginning at 11 a.m. with the 1A semifinals. High School Lites will air Friday night at 11 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago

East Aurora at No. 11 West Aurora, 7:00 p.m. -- These two rivals meet for the 225th time. The Blackhawks (20-4, 9-0) won the first matchup by 22 points as they try to finish the season on a 12-game winning streak. 

Jacobs at Dundee-Crown, 7:00 p.m. -- Fox Valley rivals match up as Jacobs tries to go unbeaten in the conference. The Eagles (23-3, 15-0) has been playing very well as they've won 20 of 21 games heading into this one -- including an earlier win against Dundee-Crown. The Chargers (14-11, 10-4) has won seven consecutive games since dropping to the Golden Eagles as they're second in the Fox Valley heading into this one. 

Yorkville at DeKalb, 7:00 p.m. -- The top two teams in the Northern Illinois Big 12 East play in this one. DeKalb (16-11, 11-1) has already clinched a share of the conference title as the team's only league loss has come against Yorkville. The Foxes (17-8, 10-2) knocked off DeKalb at their place on Feb. 3 as they try to win again to get a piece of the division title. 

T.F. North at Lemont, 7:00 p.m. -- Two of the better teams in the South Suburban Blue battle on the eve of the playoffs. Lemont (17-8, 9-3) has picked up three straight wins entering this one. T.F. North (11-9, 9-3) is trying to build some momentum after recent close losses to Hillcrest and T.F. South.

Carmel at No. 10 Benet, 7:30 p.m. -- The ESCC closes out its season with this one. Benet (22-4, 7-1) is coming off a nice road win at Marian Catholic earlier this week. Carmel (17-10, 4-4) knocked off Joliet Catholic during the week as they've been a dangerous team in the ESCC. 

Class 2A Boys Basketball Regional Championships

Leo vs. Marshall, 6 p.m. -- The Lions are the favorites but the Commandos are the host of this regional title game. Leo (20-5, 8-0) has a 13-game winning streak as they won the Catholic League White. Marshall (8-17, 4-5) struggled in the win column but they were a competitive 4-5 in a very deep Public League Red-South. 

Uplift vs. Northridge, 7 p.m. -- This should be an interesting battle as Uplift is playing on the road at Northridge. Uplift (17-9, 6-3) has played an extremely competitive schedule that includes a recent close loss to No. 1 Simeon as Kansas commit Markese Jacobs and senior forward Toraze Dobbs are one of the best combinations in the Class 2A field. Northridge (22-5, 12-0) went unbeaten in the Independent School League this season as they're riding a 13-game winning streak.

Class 1A Boys Basketball Regional Championships 

Aurora Christian vs. Harvest Christian, 7 p.m. -- These two teams play for the third time this season in what should be an interesting regional title game. Aurora Christian (23-1, 10-0) is the host as they only lost to Winnebago this season. The Eagles beat Harvest Christian twice in a six-day span in December. Harvest Christian (18-8, 8-2) finished third in the Northeastern Athletic as they played the second game within two points. 

Class 1A Girls Basketball State Semifinals

Okaw Valley vs. Stockton, 11 a.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- Okaw Valley (29-5) is making its first state appearance after winning its first regional title in school history. Stockton (31-2) finished under .500 last season (13-15) and had an amazing turnaround that includes a current 15-game winning streak. 

Lebanon vs. Schlarman, 12:45 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- These two teams have combined for two losses this season as this should be a good one. Lebanon (31-1) just won its first sectional title in school history as they've now moved on to state. Schlarman (31-1) is led by junior Anaya Peoples, a Notre Dame commit and five-star prospect in the Class of 2019. 

Class 2A Girls Basketball State Semifinals

Harlan vs. Eureka, 5:30 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- Two red-hot teams play in the first semifinal in Class 2A. Harlan (25-6) is riding a 12-game winning streak as this is its first appearance at state for girls basketball. Eureka (28-3) has a 19-game winning streak as they make their first state appearance since 1988.

Marshall vs. Teutopolis, 7:15 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- Two storied programs in the state match up in this one. Marshall (20-7) will be making its 21st state appearance as head coach Dorothy Gaters is one of the most storied coaches in Illinois. Teutopolis is making its 17th appearance at state as the Lady Shoes (28-6) seek their first title since 1995.