Waiting on Almora deal, Cubs see draft class take shape


Waiting on Almora deal, Cubs see draft class take shape

Albert Almora is the biggest name at the top of the board.

Sources say the Cubs are confident they will be able to sign Almora, that it would be a surprise if the No. 6 overall pick didnt come to an agreement before the July 13 deadline.

Almora, whos being advised by super-agent Scott Boras, has a full scholarship to the University of Miami, but the 18-year-old outfielder has played up almost his entire life.

Almora made the Mater Academy varsity while still in grade school, played for the year-round elite travel teams in South Florida and has already won five gold medals with Team USA.

While waiting to close on Almora, the Cubs announced on Saturday that they have signed 15 players from their 2012 draft class, including Paul Blackburn, a right-hander from Heritage High School in Brentwood, Calif.

The 18-year-old Blackburn, who had committed to Arizona State University, will receive a 911,700 bonus as the No. 56 overall pick, according to Baseball America. He went 8-3 with a 1.27 ERA as a high school senior, striking out 84 in 77.1 innings while walking only 17.

After using their top pick on Almora, the Cubs took seven consecutive pitchers, and 22 in total, trying to address the organizations biggest need. That was the takeaway from the first draft of the Theo Epstein administration.

Obviously, we went pitching heavy, Epstein said recently. Theres a pretty big void of pitching in our system, so beginning to address that issue with quantity, as well as quality, was something that was attractive to us, because theres so much attrition pitching-wise.

Blackburn is a more advanced, sort of polished high school pitcher who also has a chance to have three average-to-above pitches.

You need to draft numbers in order to withstand all the attrition that happens. We needed to stock the system with pitching, and we feel like we did.

The Cubs have also signed: Coastal Carolina right-hander Josh Conway (fourth round); University of Virginia infielder Stephen Bruno (seventh); University of South Carolina Beaufort left-hander Michael Heesch (eighth); University of California-Berkeley catcher Chadd Krist (ninth); and Georgia high school outfielder Rashad Crawford (11th), whos said to have eye-opening athletic ability and is regarded as a sleeper pick from this draft.

The Cubs have not made the Pierce Johnson deal official, but the Missouri State University right-hander recently posted this message on his personal Twitter account: Just signed with the Chicago Cubs! Thanks to God, family, teammates, coaches, and friends. If it wasn't for you guys I wouldn't be here!

Injury concerns probably pushed Johnson down to the No. 43 overall pick. He had a 2.53 ERA in 14 starts this year and notched 227 strikeouts in 216 innings during his three seasons at Missouri State.

Pierce Johnson is somebody that we watched closely all year, Epstein said. We didnt think we were going to have a chance at him. The little forearm strain that he had probably played to our advantage, because he doesnt get out of the first round if he had stayed healthy the entire year.

He threw great right before the draft and looked really healthy and we were real happy to be in a position to choose him. Hes got a plus fastball and gets swings-and-misses and groundballs with it, and has a plus breaking ball as well. Hes a real competitor on the mound.

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been


Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.

Blackhawks deal Michael Kempny to Capitals for conditional third-round pick


Blackhawks deal Michael Kempny to Capitals for conditional third-round pick

The Blackhawks dealt defenseman Michael Kempny to the Washington Capitals for a third-round pick. Kempny had seven points in 31 games this season.

Kempny, 27, recorded 15 points in 81 career games for the Blackhawks. He tallied an assist in Saturday's 7-1 victory over the Capitals.

Kempny signed a one-year extension through the end of this season back in May.