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What Theo Epstein needs to see from the Cubs in 2012

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What Theo Epstein needs to see from the Cubs in 2012

This was before Irrelevant, dude went viral as a catchphrase, before Super PAC became part of the conversation at Clark and Addison.

So as Cubs fans get used to life after Kerry Wood, and chairman Tom Ricketts tries to repair relationships at City Hall, take a moment and think back to all that optimism in spring training.

The goal of the 2012 Cubs, baseball czar Theo Epstein said then, was to win the World Series. The team president has to project confidence, but deep down he knew that this was a year to evaluate every aspect of the organization.

The Cubs woke up on Thursday with the worst record in baseball (15-29), 10 games out of first place. They will stagger into PNC Park on Friday with a nine-game losing streak to face the Pittsburgh Pirates, a franchise that knows all about false steps.

Right now the front office is locked in on the June draft, where the Cubs hold the sixth overall pick, and five within the first 101 selections.

Epstein has called it the most important days of the year, and the Cubs know they have to kill it. The spending restrictions that came out of the new collective bargaining agreement have turned this into a scouting contest.

The season is now 27 percent complete, and what Epstein said in late March gives you an idea of what to watch for the rest of this season.

Epstein sat at the head of a long table in a conference room overlooking the main field at HoHoKam Stadium. Beat writers asked questions that have even more relevance now. Like: What do you need to see to know things are moving in the right direction?

From a results standpoint, its pretty black and white, Epstein said then. (But) there are some other things that we need to see. If we dont see them, well have failed. From a culture standpoint, we want to see a winning attitude around here. We want to see attention to detail. We want to see hard work. We want to see preparation.

We want to see players who care about the outcome of games. We want to see players who care about and support each other. We want to see players who take pride in the uniform. We want to be the most prepared coaching staff on any given day.

The last time the Cubs lost nine games in a row was almost exactly 10 years ago, May 8-18, 2002. Corey Patterson was hitting leadoff, Sammy Sosa was swinging away, Joe Girardi was behind the plate and Wood was on his way to a career high in innings pitched (213 23).

Manager Don Baylor made it to the Fourth of July and was fired the next day, part of a shakeup that saw team president Andy MacPhail promote Jim Hendry to general manager. Hendry rebuilt the team on the fly and had it five outs away from the National League pennant in 2003.

These Cubs wont be taking drastic measures. Manager Dale Sveum is viewed as having the ideal temperament for this rebuilding project, and hes surrounded by an experienced, respected group of coaches.

Grade them on how Starlin Castro improves his focus in the field and how Welington Castillo frames pitches. Bonus points if Travis Wood or Randy Wells or Chris Volstad figures it out and never leaves the rotation.

The prism through which you can view the final 118 games is separating out the Corey Pattersons. Its making sure Jeff Samardzija stays healthy and handles the transition to starting. Its seeing how Rafael Dolis responds to failure and if he closes out the next ninth inning.

Sooner or later, Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson will be coming from Triple-A Iowa for their auditions.

I would like to see our young players who get an opportunity at the big-league level develop, Epstein said in late March. Obviously, not all of them will. Most young players struggle initially in the big leagues. But how they bounce back from initial struggles and adjust to the pace of the game at the big-league level and continue the progress thats going to be important.

Its something that championship-caliber organizations do integrate young players onto their major-league roster relatively seamlessly. Its never seamlessly. Theres always an adjustment period. But, again, it goes back to the culture if you can create a culture where its expected that young players come up and can contribute.

Theyre not looked at as pariahs. Theyre not picked apart for what they cant do. Theyre valued for what they can do and ultimately contribute and help win games for the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Next thing you know they become mainstays. Thats an important part of what were going to accomplish this year.

Behind the scenes, it will be implementing The Cubs Way from the Dominican Republic to Des Moines.

We lack impact talent, Epstein said. We have a number of interesting guys, especially at the lower levels, but every organization has interesting guys at the lower levels.

It would really be nice to get a breakthrough player or two this year and have someone move from that interesting prospect category to potential impact category. So well see theres a lot of work to do.

This doesnt do much if you feel buried by the invoices for season tickets. Youll get laughed at if youre on a barstool or at the water cooler arguing with a White Sox fan. It wont jumpstart the Wrigley Field renovation talks.

But how else would you do it if ownership gave you a very long runway?

The noise from fans? They seem to understand that this isnt 2003 or 2008, that the Cubs arent thisclose. The backlash from columnists and talking heads? Ride it out, knowing that the economics and consolidation have shrunk the medias footprint and silenced voices.

This market doesnt do nuance very well. In a few days, the tone on Twitter and in the pressbox has essentially gone from maybe a year awaythings could get interesting to worst team ever.

But as Epstein said almost two months ago, Theres a subtext.

No one knows if this is actually going to work. But it should be fascinating to find out.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks face Golden Knights for first time

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks face Golden Knights for first time

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Vegas Golden Knights Tuesday on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 8:45 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Corey Crawford vs. ... Oscar Dansk? 

The Golden Knights have seen both Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban go down with injuries, so they're scraping for goaltenders at this point.

On one end of the ice, you have one of the best netminders in the league and a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Crawford. On the other, you have a 23-year-old rookie in Dansk making his first official NHL start who will be backed up by a 24-year-old rookie in Maxime Lagace, who has never appeared in an NHL game.

In his first game action, Dansk stopped 10 of 11 shots in relief during Saturday's 3-2 overtime win over St. Louis.

2. Fast start.

The Blackhawks are tied for second in both goals scored (13) and fewest goals allowed (four) in the first period, which has a large reason for their early season success.

The Golden Knights aren't the kind of team that gets out to a blazing start. They've allowed only five goals in the opening frame, but they've scored only five as well, which ranks among the bottom 10 teams in the league. 

3. Beware of James Neal.

The Golden Knights became the first team in NHL history to win six of their first seven games of their inaugural season. And they probably don't have half of those wins if it weren't for Neal, who scored the game-winning goal in each of their first three games.

He leads the club with six goals and eight points, and serves as the motor for a team that doesn't have much offensive talent. He's the go-to guy, and somebody you have to keep an eye on when he's on the ice.

 

Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against LeBron and the Cavaliers

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against LeBron and the Cavaliers

Here are Three Things to Watch in the Bulls' Tuesday night tilt against the Cavaliers on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live.

1. LeBron James will be on your television

Love him or hate him, LeBron James is must-see TV. Now in his 15th NBA season, James has shown no signs of slowing down. Despite playing just one preseason game (against the Bulls), James has shown anything but rust in three games, averaging 25.0 points on 60 percent shooting, 8.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists in nearly 37 minutes. He's a threat every night to do something you've never seen on a basketball court, His Airness included. Justin Holiday and Paul Zipser will have their hands full against the game's best player.

2. Lauri Markkanen, Week 2

Small sample size alert! But through the season's first week Markkanen and Ben Simmons are the only rookies averaging a double-double (Dallas' Dennis Smith has played just one game, averaging 16 points and 10 assists). While the Bulls have struggled through two games, Markkanen's net rating is third best on the team and he leads the Bulls bigs in rebounds per game and rebound percentage. Markkanen has shown some versatility offensively, and his 7 free-throw attempts have been a nice surprise as well.

3. Don't forget: The Bulls swept the Cavaliers last year

OK, so expecting a victory Tuesday night in Cleveland isn't smart. The Bulls will be underdogs just like they were in each of the four games last season, all of which were Bulls winners. It was the first time in 52 division series that LeBron James had been swept, which is pretty remarkable considering the Bulls were the No. 8 seed and the Cavs coasted to a third straight NBA Finals. We're not over here predicting a win. But just remember: the Bulls have fared well against James in the regular season.