Bears

Maholm roughed up in Cubs debut

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Maholm roughed up in Cubs debut

Paul Maholm needed 41 pitches to get through his first inning at Wrigley Field in a Cubs uniform. When it was over, he walked off the mound to sarcastic applause.

The Cubs know a lot of things will have to break right if theyre going to contend this season. But they feel confident that theyll put a credible starting pitcher on the mound 162 times this season.

Yes, this is only about three percent of the season. But this business is all about taking snapshots. The Cubs are 1-4 after their first run through the rotation.

It was a raw, cold Tuesday night at Clark and Addison 40 degrees at first pitch and still the Milwaukee Brewers blasted Maholm in front of 37,265 fans. A 7-4 loss showed the margins for this Cubs team.

To put it blunt, I sucked, Maholm said.

One through five, manager Dale Sveum feels like his rotation can stack up with anyone. The bullpen will cause anxiety, and the lineup wont outslug the opposition on most nights. But the Cubs should probably be better than 1-4 right now.

Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija and Chris Volstad combined to throw 27.1 innings and allowed only seven earned runs. They notched 29 strikeouts against six walks and limited hitters to a .170 average.

Maholm simply didnt have it against the Brewers (3-2), walking two batters and hitting two more in a first inning so off that ex-Cub Aramis Ramirez even stole a base during this sequence.

Alex Gonzalez drilled what Maholm called a bad cutter (that) pretty much turns into a BP fastball through a strong wind and into the left-field bleachers for a three-run homer.

The Brewers took a 5-0 lead. In the end, it didnt really matter that Maholm who gave up six runs in four innings steadied himself.

He just couldnt put anybody away, Sveum said. I didnt think he had a good feel for his curveball at all (or) keeping his changeup down. He couldnt get the ball inside for strikes. It just snowballed a little bit in that first inning. He settled down and did OK after that, but the damage was done already.

Maholm had spent his entire career in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization until signing a 4.25 million deal here (with a 6.5 million club option for 2013 or a 500,000 buyout). The 29-year-old left-hander broke the news on his Twitter account over the winter.

It wasnt a huge story, but it showed the front offices top priority. Pitching depth was exactly what this team needed. Maholm has accounted for at least 160 innings in each of his last six seasons. If the Cubs are going to make it interesting, it will be on the rotation.

I dont know if it was trying to do too much, but its one of 30-something starts, Maholm said. Obviously, (we) want to get off to a better start than we have. But weve been in almost every game. (Its) a long season. Well battle back and well get after it tomorrow.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 grade: B-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Kyle Fuller (free agent), Prince Amukamara (free agent), Marcus Cooper (contract), Sherrick McManis (free agent), Bryce Callahan (restricted free agent), Quintin Demps (contract)

Possible free agent targets: Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland, E.J. Gaines, Rashaad Melvin, Robert McClain, Darrelle Revis

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios for the Bears at cornerback, ranging from keeping the status quo to blowing the whole thing up, and everything in between. Safety is far more stable, with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson proving to be a reliable pairing, so that’s set for 2018.

Let’s start with one end of that cornerback spectrum: The Bears keep the top of this unit intact. That means, No. 1, retaining Kyle Fuller via the franchise tag and/or a long-term contract. No. 2, it means bringing back Prince Amukamara, who didn’t record an interception and committed a few too many penalties, but otherwise was a fine enough cover corner. No. 3, it means keeping restricted free agent Bryce Callahan as the team’s No. 1 slot corner.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like an altogether bad option. The Bears weren’t spectacular at cornerback in 2017, but the position was a little better than average, which isn’t the worst place to be for a single unit. Couple with solid play from the safeties and the Bears’ defensive backs were overall a decent enough group. Outside of Marcus Cooper -- who is a candidate to be cut for cap savings -- the Bears may not need to make wholesale changes to this group.

That, though, is a rosier look at this unit. The Bears can certainly improve the personnel in it with a healthy amount of cap space and a strong crop of free agent cornerbacks about to hit the market. Keeping Fuller and then signing a top-tier player like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler would upgrade this group, as would bringing back Fuller and Amukamara but then using a high draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.

Unless the Bears sign two big-time cornerbacks -- i.e. Fuller and Johnson, or even a guy like Brashaud Breeland or E.J. Gaines -- it would seem reasonable for them to use a first or second-round pick on a cornerback in an effort to find a longer-term solution at the position. That doesn’t mean the Bears would absolutely have to go that route, especially with other needs at wide receiver, guard and outside linebacker.

But here’s another thought: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears are able to sign a combination of two top cornerbacks in free agency. With plenty of cap space top-end free agents lacking at wide receiver and outside linebacker/edge rusher, could Pace allocate a good chunk of that money to, say, tagging Fuller and making runs at Johnson, Butler and/or Breeland? 2018 looks to be a good year to be aggressive in the free agent cornerback market, and that could play into the Bears’ strategy well.

Before we finish, we should carve out some space for Amos and Jackson. Pro Football Focus isn’t the only outlet that’s given Amos high marks -- Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranked him as the No. 1 free safety in the league, too. Jackson came in at No. 19 in B/R’s strong safety rankings, which is pretty solid for a fourth-round rookie.

But the larger point here isn’t exactly where Amos and Jackson are in outside evaluations -- it’s that, tangibly, the pair played well off each other on a consistent basis last year. Seeing as Amos didn’t enter the Bears’ starting lineup until Week 4 -- after Quintin Demps suffered a season-ending broken forearm against Pittsburgh -- how quickly and successfully he and Jackson meshed was one of the more impressive developments for the Bears’ 2017 defense. Amos needs to make more plays on the ball and Jackson has some things to clean up, but the Bears enter the 2018 league year not needing to address their safety position. That’s a good place to be for a team with other significant needs.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls-76ers

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Bulls-76ers

The Bulls square off against the Sixers tonight on NBC Sports Chicago, with coverage beginning at 6:30 with Bulls Pregame Live. Here are three things to watch as the Bulls begin the stretch run of their regular season.

1. The new rotation: Most of the Bulls’ rotation looks the same, but the addition of David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne will have a different feel. The Bulls clearly want to get a look at these guys before the end of the regular season, meaning they’re not just going to get sporadic minutes. They’ll have to play through their mistakes, play out-matched at times and be put in uncomfortable situations. But the Bulls need to see what they have, especially in Payne, who has missed the entire season to this point with a broken foot.

2. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons: They’re quite the 1-2 punch and have the Sixers looking at their first playoff appearance since Derrick Rose hadn’t yet torn an ACL. Yeah, that’s a long time. Embiid just finished his first All-Star appearance (starting in his second year) and Simmons is the front runner for Rookie of the Year. The Bulls will have their hands full with these two. Luckily…

3. Kris Dunn is back: The Bulls wanted to get Dunn some run before heading to All-Star Weekend to play in the Rising Stars Challenge, and he looked healthy in that thumping against the Raptors last week. The good news is John Paxson says Dunn won’t be on a minutes limit, which means he’s healthy. That, of course, is more important than how he’s playing. It’ll be fun to see him, LaVine and Markkanen play together down the stretch. Their numbers together aren’t great, but the Bulls are 2-2 with all three in the lineup, and tanking or not…it’s more fun to watch when those three are rolling.