White Sox

What we learned about the Cubs at the halfway point

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What we learned about the Cubs at the halfway point

ATLANTA The history of this franchise isnt divided into two parts before and after Anthony Rizzo. It just seemed that way for a few news cycles.

But in one-plus week, Rizzo has come through with enough clutch hits and acrobatic plays at first base to make you think the Cubs have something here, not to mention his sense of calm and maturity in the clubhouse and the dugout.

After all, this is Rizzos third organization in three years, so he already understands that its a business and you cant get too comfortable.

The Cubs are at the halfway point of the season after Wednesdays 5-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves in front of 40,604 fans at Turner Field. There are 81 games in the books, and along with the Colorado Rockies, they have the worst record in baseball (31-50), even after winning seven of their last nine.

When youre 20 games under .500, youve obviously underachieved, manager Dale Sveum said. The thing about it is two really glaring things: We have to start throwing strikes. Period. And you have to hit with men in scoring position. (Thats) where weve struggled.

The defense has been pretty good. (Were) a much more stable team than we were a month ago as far as the lineup goes (and) the back end of the bullpen has been pretty solid.

The next 81 games will be about identifying and acquiring core pieces to build around Rizzo and Starlin Castro, and figuring out what to do with the rotation going forward.

On the Fourth of July, Paul Maholm limited the Braves (42-39) to one run across six innings, which means his name will probably pop up next to Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza on MLBTradeRumors.com.

Rizzo and Bryan LaHair each homered, and that made you wonder what the record would be like if those two big left-handed bats were in the lineup together all season.

And Alfonso Soriano the 136 million lightning rod who is loved by teammates and hated by some fans made a key defensive play, throwing Chipper Jones out at home to end the sixth inning and preserve a one-run lead.

We played a ton of close games (where) the pitcher didnt make the pitch (or) we didnt come up with the big hit, Maholm said. But guys are coming in here preparing and expecting to go for nine (innings), and thats all you can ask. Guys take it hard losing, but you also understand that you got to get back after it tomorrow.

Three-plus months isnt a long time if youre Theo Epstein, who believes in Bill Walshs theory that an executive or coach gets 10 years in an organization before everything becomes stale. The Cubs president of baseball operations has total authority, working for an ownership group that seems to be happy to be his wingmen.

But several things have become clear since Opening Day. Sveum hasnt gone viral with a wacky YouTube moment, projecting calm in his first year on the job. You saw the preparation and attention to detail in the first inning, when Freddie Freeman hit a ball up the middle, right where Castro was standing, for a double play.

Perhaps the fastest way to anger this coaching staff is to freelance and go off the script. The night before, Sveum called out Chris Volstad for shaking off catcher Steve Clevenger too many times, in his 20th start without a victory.

Pitching coach Chris Bosio is a former advance scout with the Milwaukee Brewers, and the staff believes in statistical analysis and defensive positioning. The front office made significant investments in video technology and hired more scouts. Thats why Volstad appeared to have committed a cardinal sin.

Ill just say we wandered a little bit from what we like to do, Bosio said. We do have a clear game plan and when we execute our plan, for the most part, weve been in every game.

Its when we deviate, we walk guys or dont make pitches. We have to make pitches and put the ball in play and not walk guys. ... You got to trust your stuff and let our defense work.

At the age of 22, Castro is a two-time All-Star shortstop, and you cant take talents like that for granted. LaHair has so far taken advantage of the chance of a lifetime, hitting 14 homers in 222 at-bats and being voted an All-Star by his fellow players.

Sveum thinks Darwin Barney who hasnt committed an error in 68 games and routinely makes highlight-reel plays could be a Gold Glove second baseman and perhaps a foundation piece for the future.

Ian Stewart whos scheduled to undergo exploratory surgery on his left wrist that could end his season doesnt look like a long-term answer at third base. Follow his personal Twitter account for updates.

Clevenger has played well enough behind the plate that Sveum has to insist that Geovany Soto isnt a platoon catcher (even if it sometimes looks that way).

The Cubs are 14-23 in games decided by one or two runs, which could be a sign that theyre not light years away. Adding Rizzo and fixing closer Carlos Marmol (whos converted his last six save opportunities) could make a difference on the bottom line.

Its frustrating, utility man Jeff Baker said. We lost a lot of games early in the year that we probably could have won. We put ourselves behind the eight-ball to where now were playing spoiler.

We still got a competitive team. Well go out there and play hard. Guys are making improvements. Youve seen guys get better.

Sveum thinks the goal is to play .500 ball or better the rest of the way, though no one knows what this team is going to look like before and after the July 31 trade deadline. The changes could be drastic.

Thats the reality of the game when youre in the situation we are, Sveum said. Day-to-day, it could be a completely different roster. You never know whats going to happen. (So) you can have a different lineup (or) a different pitching staff at any time during the month of July, and even into August.

Would potential bargains like Mike Moustakas or Carlos Gonzalez make sense for White Sox?

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USA TODAY

Would potential bargains like Mike Moustakas or Carlos Gonzalez make sense for White Sox?

The 2017-18 baseball offseason continues to be, well, the 2017-18 baseball offseason, even with spring training games being played in Arizona and Florida.

A bunch of names remain on the free-agent market, including All-Star players who thought they would be in for big multi-year contracts. But as teams continue to deny the wishes of guys who expected to get big deals, the suggestion that those players might end up needing to take one-year offers if they want to play during the 2018 season is becoming a more common talking point.

So with potential bargains to be had for some pretty big-name players, do the White Sox jump into the waters and try to lock up a potential future piece on the cheap? Though they aren’t expected to contend this season, the White Sox have been mentioned in a pair of recent reports surrounding a pair of All-Star position players: Mike Moustakas and Carlos Gonzalez.

MLB.com's Jon Morosi wrote last week that the White Sox are a potential fit for Moustakas, who has sat and watched as former Kansas City Royals teammate Eric Hosmer received a huge contract from the San Diego Padres. Moustakas set a new Royals record last season with 38 home runs but has yet to find a team.

The White Sox, connected to Baltimore Orioles star Manny Machado earlier this offseason, seem to have a current big leaguer or highly ranked prospect locked into almost every position on the diamond for the foreseeable future, but third base isn't necessarily one of them. Jake Burger was last year’s top draft pick, though there’s speculation he could slide over to first base. The team still envisions him as a big league third baseman, for what it’s worth.

Moustakas is 29 and already has seven big league seasons under his belt, including a pair of All-Star appearances and a pair of trips to the World Series, including the Crowns’ championship back in 2015. His 38 homers and 85 RBIs in 2017 were both career highs. He slashed .272/.314/.521, the final of those three numbers the best mark of his career.

Moustakas has rarely hit for average or reached base at too high a clip, though those recent power numbers would be intriguing at a hitter-friendly park like Guaranteed Rate Field, where he has 10 career dingers, 26 career RBIs and a .249/.308/.456 career slash line as a visitor.

Certainly Moustakas would be a buzz-worthy addition, and if the White Sox could get him for a good value thanks to this slow-moving market, that adds incentive to bring him aboard. A short contract would have even more incentive for the rebuilding White Sox, who would have the option to either sign him to a long-term deal or deal him away in a deadline deal depending on his immediate production levels.

But for fans hoping the White Sox will spend big on a third baseman in one of the next two offseasons — Machado is a free agent next winter, and Colorado Rockies star Nolan Arenado is set to hit the market the winter after next — slotting in an outside addition at the hot corner now could impact those plans.

Gonzalez is a completely different story, a three-time All Star during his 10-year big league career who is just three seasons removed from a 40-homer campaign in 2015. The 32-year-old Gonzalez also has a trio of Gold Gloves to go along with his 215 career home runs. FanRag’s Jon Heyman listed the White Sox as a possible landing spot for CarGo this weekend.

But his walk year in Colorado was not a very good one by his standards. In 136 games for a Rockies team that ended up in the playoffs, he slashed .262/.339/.423, all those averages way down from his usual level of production. And his power numbers plummeted to 14 homers and 57 RBIs after he combined for 65 homers and 197 RBIs in 2015 and 2016.

The good news for the White Sox is that down year makes Gonzalez far more affordable. Should he command only a one-year contract, the White Sox could take a flier, stick him in the outfield — which still has an unresolved spot with few strong offensive options for center field — and trade him should he bounce back in a big way. Or, at 32, perhaps he’s a guy the White Sox could opt to keep around should he prove valuable and the rebuild continues to move along ahead of schedule.

Gonzalez seems the less risky move at this point, as Moustakas could still be looking for a multi-year contract. But the White Sox have plenty of financial flexibility and flexibility in their decision-making should they add either guy and he proves worthy of a midseason deal or a long-term look.

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”