Cubs

Thibodeau, Bulls ready for opener with healthy Hinrich

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Thibodeau, Bulls ready for opener with healthy Hinrich

DEERFIELD, ILL.First, the good news. Starting point guard Kirk Hinrich will play in the Bulls regular-season opener, apparently with no limitations in the wake of the strained right-groin injury he suffered in the preseason, according to Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Hes fine, the coach said after the teams Tuesday-morning shootaround at the Berto Center. Hes been fine the last two days in practice, so hes good.

Thibodeau has been pleased with how Hinrich has picked up a system thats changed since his original stint in Chicago. Although he was sidelined for two exhibition contestshe also missed a game with a right-thumb injuryHinrich appeared rejuvenated in his return to the Bulls during the preseason.

You judge your point guard by how the team is functioning and so, I thought he set the tone on offense and defense for us. The ball pressure was good, his help defense was good, he kept us organized, he played with a good pace, his willingness to read matchups, read the extra pass, the ability to understand what everybodys strengths and weaknesses are. I thought he had a very good preseason, Thibodeau said. Hes been around. Hes hard-working, hes tough. He gets in early, he stays late. Hes done a good job.

Now, the negative situation surrounding the Bulls on Halloween. The organization has an 11 p.m. Central time deadline to reach an agreement with valuable reserve Taj Gibson on a long-term contract extension.

The desire for Gibson to remain in Chicago is mutual, but the two sides have had a gap when it comes to closing the deal, though it should be noted that the Bulls would be able to match opposing offers next summer, if the fourth-year player were to hit the open market. Thibodeau believes Gibson is doing a good job of not letting the ongoing negotiations between the franchises front office and his Chicago-based agent, Mark Bartelstein, affect his play.

Hes handled it well. Hes just focused on playing, Thibodeau said of Gibson, whose peers in the 2009 draft class have found it hard to get extensions, though Golden States Stephen Curry reportedly reached a deal Tuesday morning and Denvers Ty Lawson, another point guard, agreed to terms Monday. Thats the business side and his agent will take care of that for him. Hes done a good job in practice and getting ready.

As for the Bulls opponent Tuesday, the Sacramento Kings, Thibodeau isnt underestimating the young team. Despite a mediocre record last season and low expectations for this campaign, Thibodeau lauded their talent and depth.

Theyre dangerous. They can put a lot of points on the board and they have a lot of weapons. DeMarcus Cousins skill set is unique. Jason Thompson is very underrated. Former Bull James Johnson has gotten better every year in the league, he said. Former NBA Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans can hurt you off the dribble, in the post, catch and shoot, athletic, runs the floor. Fellow Seattle native Nate Robinsons protg Isaiah Thomas, big-time scorer, had a great year as a rookie last year and they added Aaron Brooks, whos started a lot of games. Marcus Thornton is a big-time scorer off the bench. Travis Outlaws been a very good player in the league. Chuck Hayes is one of those guys I dont think you can ever measure him statistically; he can guard all five positions, hes a terrific passer, great rebounder. Thomas Robinsons a good young player.

This team, theyre very talented. Theyre talented, theyre deep and they can score. Were going to be challenged. We have to be ready.

While Evanswho is in the same boat as Gibson, but is reportedly seeking a max-level contract and is unlikely to receive onewas viewed as the future of the Kings after he drew Oscar Robertson comparisons as a rookie, Cousins has taken over that role. The volatile big man, who played alongside Gibson in July with the USA Select Team in Las Vegas, has quietly developed into one of the leagues top young post players.

Theres not much he cant do. He can face you up and he can shoot, he can post, he can pass. You dont realize how quick he is and athletic. On ball reversal, if youre not careful, hell jump out in the passing lane. He can handle the ball. Hes a basketball player, praised Thibodeau, using one of injured superstar Derrick Roses go-to phrases to describe a well-rounded player. Ive been very impressed with him.

While Thibodeau was pleased with some of his teams progress during the exhibition season, he still feels the team has a long way to go, regardless of its 5-2 preseason mark. The coach didnt go as far as using the old axiom that the preseason doesnt matter, but hes been focused on the Bulls being consistent.

Each game reveals something to you, but it doesnt stop. We want to keep evolving as it goes along, so youre going to learn more about how guys function together, what gives us our best chance, he said. That never ends and I think youre constantly studying and evaluating the team, and the game tells you the things youre doing well and the things youre not doing well, and for us, I dont want us to change what were doing. I want us to concentrate on improvement. I think we have an understanding of what we have to do to be successful and I want to make sure were moving in that direction every day.

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.