Kentucky freshman basketball sensation Anthony Davis isn't the only teenager from the Chicago area who likely will parley an unexpected but sizeable growth spurt into a promising career in professional sports.Meet Mundelein's Ryan Borucki, a fire-balling left-handed pitcher who has leaped ahead of his rivals to become one of the leading major league prospects in the Midwest this spring. Not bad for a kid whose baseball hero is Scott Podsednik.Two years ago, Borucki was a 5-foot-9, 130-pounder who threw a 76 mph fastball, not hard enough to break a pane of glass. This year, the 18-year-old senior is a 6-foot-4, 175-pounder whose 92 mph heater regularly draws as many as 30 major league scouts to his games."I wanted to play college baseball but I didn't grow so I didn't think it would happen," Borucki said. "Then I started to grow and began to throw harder. It was nerve-wracking to see all those scouts standing behind the screen with radar guns."There was pressure at first. When I made my first start, I thought I had to impress them. Now I just want to help my team win and whatever happens with the pros...well, it happens. Sure, I want to play pro ball. It always has been my goal since I was a kid. If I get the opportunity, I'll take it."So you can imagine that this is a very trying time for the 18-year-old youngster. He can't pitch. He has been shut down for about 10 days with tendonitis in his elbow. He won't throw again until next week. And the major league draft is just around the corner.He developed a soreness in his elbow in the fifth inning while pitching a no-hitter against Cary-Grove last week. He wanted to complete the no-hitter so he didn't tell anyone. He finished the no-hitter and struck out13 along the way. That was the good news. Then came the bad news."I thought I would bounce back. But I didn't," Borucki said. "When the soreness didn't go away, I wondered what was wrong. Tommy John surgery ran through my mind a couple of times. I was sleeping and thinking about it. But once I went to the doctor and he assured me that it wasn't serious, it took a big weight off my back."The major league draft is coming up (June 4) and I'm missing 10 days, one or two starts. Hopefully, I'll get back as fast as possible. The scouts say I'll be drafted in the first 10 rounds, maybe as high as the sixth round. That's good enough to send me to the minors."Borucki, who also is committed to Iowa and could opt to attend college rather than sign out of high school, was off to a sensational start this spring. He is 3-0. In 12 23 innings, he has allowed only four hits and no earned runs. He has struck out 21 while walking only three.He plays first base when not pitching and is one of Mundelein's top batsmen. He is hitting .343 with eight RBI and eight doubles in 12 games. The Mustangs are 13-2 after beating Evanston1-0 on Saturday."Ryan is a late bloomer. He was our No. 3 pitcher last year. But he grew three inches and added 6-7 mph on his fastball. Now every time he pitches, 20 to 30 scouts show up," said Mundelein coach Todd Parola."I'm not surprised. Scouts love lefties who throw hard. My only concern is that Ryan continues to pitch and not become a thrower who wants to see how hard he can throw. Scouts like his velocity. I still think he has an upside. He is lean and lanky. He can fill out. He has more potential for growth."Borucki agrees. He loves to eat but, for whatever reason, he can't see to put on weight. He wants to weigh 195-200 pounds but despite a nutritional diet that calls for more meat and vegetables and rice, he doesn't gain any weight. And he refuses to give up pizza, soda pop and candy."I guess that's what gives me such a upside, why the scouts project me as having the potential to grow bigger," Borucki said. "I can fill out. It's a plus that I'm skinny for the time being."One thing is certain: his fastball is getting faster. He has been working with Kyle Zaleski, who operates an elite power pitching program at the Libertyville Sports Complex. Under Zaleski's tutelage, Borucki's progress has been dramatic."He has helped to increase my velocity," Borucki said. "His whole thing is you should throw five miles per hour faster after the program is done, from November to March. It has worked for me. Last year, I was throwing 82 miles per hour as a junior. I was throwing 86 at the beginning of the season, then 88 this year. I threw 92 at the Super 60 on Super Bowl Sunday. Kyle thinks I can throw faster. If I fill out, I can hit 95-plus. And that makes my changeup even more effective."Borucki and Parola agree on something else: his best pitch is his changeup, not his fastball. And a changeup becomes even more effective when the guy who's throwing it also has a 92 mph fastball instead of 76. He also has a sidewinder curve that puts left-handed batters on their heels."It was a tough assignment when I got bigger and stronger," Borucki said. "I didn't know how to pitch before. I was a first baseman. My changeup was my best pitch. When I was younger, I worked on it because I couldn't throw the ball past anyone. I was a junk-baller. The changeup was my go-to pitch. I had to learn to spot pitches. I could throw it down the middle as a freshman but it will be hit hard on the varsity level. Now I can throw all three pitches for strikes."There was a time when Borucki thought he was a hard-hitting first baseman, not a pitcher. In fact, he still prefers being a position player who plays every day. As a sophomore, he considered himself to be a hitter. His father still throws batting practice to his son every day. They've been doing it since Ryan was 5 years old."I liked playing every day. That's the most fun I get in baseball," Ryan said. "But pitching is fun, too. I like pitching more and more as I get older."His dream would be to be drafted by the Chicago White Sox, his favorite team. Growing up, he always favored the White Sox over the Cubs. And he became an especially big man when the White Sox won the World Series in 2005 and his favorite player, Scott Podsednik, emerged as a World Series hero."Nobody else was a fan of his. He was a silent guy," Borucki said. "But when he hit that walkoff home run in Game 2...well, I really became a big fan."
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.
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.”