Cubs

Ask Aggrey: Rose's outburst came as no surprise

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Ask Aggrey: Rose's outburst came as no surprise

ORLANDO -- I know I should be focused on Derrick Rose's health status and how Dwight Howard plays after committing to stay with the Magic, but come on. It's March Madness. I can't say it's been the best NCAA Tournament I've ever seen (perhaps my terrible bracket predictions have clouded my view), but even in the midst of another stellar Bulls regular-season run, I'm consumed with college teams and players. Upsets like Norfolk State over Missouri and Lehigh over Duke were amazing to see -- well, at least bits of pieces of them between quarters of NBA games -- and players like Iowa State's Royce White, as well as Kyle O'Quinn and C.J. McCollum of aforementioned Norfolk State and Lehigh, respectively, have truly opened eyes. The thrill of so-called elite teams getting beat in the one-and-done format is a great respite from the grind of the pro game, even watching from afar, despite my beloved Temple Owls losing to South Florida. Regardless, the remainder of the tournament should be a blast and from players to media, it's a hot topic of conversation in locker rooms around the league as teams enter the stretch run of the regular season. With that, on to this week's mailbag.

Hey Aggrey, why do the Bulls keep signing Scalabrine when they could use that spot for another big? -- Craig T.

Craig, Scal is Thibs' guy. Nothing more needs to be said. Seriously, what Scal lacks in talent, he makes up for with his basketball I.Q. and knowledge of the system. With Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans jettisoned from last season's squad, it's hard to make the argument that he was re-signed simply for chemistry purposes. However, along with Rip, he's the only Bulls player with championship experience and scoff if you want, but he was a valuable contributor in his younger days with the Nets and Celtics. True, his best days are behind him, but his function as a de facto assistant coach adds value and he's popular in the locker room. Also, even with Mike James' return, the Bulls still only have 14 players on their roster, so Scal's presence doesn't prevent the front office from adding another big man.

Were you surprised to hear Derrick speak out against the refs? -- Scott E.

Scott, in the time I've been around Derrick, I've learned that he's a principled type of guy, as evidenced by his unwillingness to recruit players to Chicago. Thus, while his timing and choice of words could have been better, the fact that he spoke up about something he believed was unfair didn't surprise me in the least. As much as he gets to the line, there are calls that are missed when he drives to the basket, something Thibs attributes to his blend of speed and power. Although Derrick certainly wasn't happy about losing 25,000 to the league, if he and the Bulls benefit from more fouls being called, it would be well worth it. Additionally, people tend to forget that he's 23 years old now. This is no longer the wunderkind from Simeon, but a grown man with lots of responsibilities, so if he feels justified in saying something other than the typical athlete-speak, personally, I welcome it. Some might not appreciate him referring to himself as a "superstar."

Are you surprised how the Dwight Howard saga ended (at least for not)? -- T.J.

T.J., I can't say I'm all that shocked. I've had the chance to sit down with Howard on a couple of occasions and one thing that I took from those interviews is that he likes to make people happy, for better or worse. In the end, I believe the pressure of being a villain was too much for him, but I also think he came to his senses and realized Orlando is the third-best team in the East, something highlighted by the Magic's win over the Heat prior to the trade deadline. Looking at a situation like the Nets, he had to realize that maybe the grass isn't greener elsewhere and although it remains to be seen if Orlando's front office will put the pieces around him to win a championship within the next year, at least they have more time on the clock to do so. As an aside, I wonder when superstars will see the light and realize it's not the best idea to broadcast their future intentions, let alone have a season-long circus counting down their eventual fate. Howard cares about his image and likely realized his drawn-out situation wasn't exactly endearing himself to fans, major market or not.

How's your NCAA Tournament bracket doing? -- Ted G.

Ted, my bracket is pretty much broken, I have to admit. I pride myself on my college hoops acumen and have won a fair share of tournament pools in my life, but I've really struggled this year. Part of it is due to a friend of mine, Anthony Evans, whose Norfolk State team knocked out Missouri in the opening round. Missouri was one of my Final Four picks, but I can't be too disappointed, since my friend's professional success outweighs me winning a pool. However, I can't say the same for Georgetown, a program I've loved since childhood. I acknowledge that I picked the Hoyas to advance to the semifinals -- I think they would have matched up well with a banged-up North Carolina team (even before Kendall Marshall broke his non-shooting wrist, John Henson's injury gave me hope) and I thought they'd get revenge on Kansas for a narrow early-season defeat -- with my heart more than my head, but I never expected them to lose so early in the tournament. After Florida State's loss to Cincinnati (yes, I jumped off the Syracuse bandwagon after Fab Melo was ruled ineligible), I'm down to just one of my Final Four teams, Kentucky. I picked the Wildcats to win it all, so I'll have a bit of redemption if they pull it off. Like the Bulls have said throughout this injury-riddled campaign, no excuses, but due to the condensed NBA schedule, I've watched less college basketball this season than any time in recent memory. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

The Heat certainly didn't look good against the Rose-less Bulls. Was it just an off-night for them or do you think the Bulls could be the top team in the East when its all said and done? -- Xander S.

Xander, I would call it more of an off stretch for the Heat, as they were coming off a tough game against Indiana, followed by an overtime loss to the Magic the night before they played the Bulls. Miami seems to have reverted to the buddy-ball style of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade taking turns on offense, which isn't conducive to postseason success, as defensive-minded teams, such as the Bulls, are equipped to subdue the effects of that approach, especially if Chris Bosh is reduced to being a spectator. A lack of size in the middle still hurts them, designated sharpshooter Mike Miller's health status doesn't help the situation, veteran Shane Battier, while still a valuable defender and spot-up shooter, appears to have lost a step, and after a strong start to the season, the point-guard duo of starter Mario Chalmers and rookie backup Norris Cole looks to be pedestrian more often than not. At the same time, they're still the defending Eastern Conference champions, as Thibs likes to remind people, and with three All-Stars, I wouldn't write them off just yet. Both the Bulls and Heat have issues to address, so as of right now, I'd have to say it's a toss-up, even taking the impressive win last week under consideration.

Keep the questions -- whether theyre about the Bulls, the rest of the NBA, other levels of basketball or life in general -- coming. Youll get a much better explanation, though not as instant, than you would via Twitter with only 140 characters. You can submit a question by commenting on this article below or by clicking here.

According to Javy Baez, the Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

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USA Today

According to Javy Baez, the Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over and over again, it’s always been framed in relatively vague terms. Perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager who is still well-liked within the clubhouse, specifics were always avoided. It was just a change that was needed.

That is, until Javy Baez spoke on Sunday morning. In no unclear terms, Baez took a stab at explaining why such a talented team has fallen short of expectations in back-to-back seasons. 

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” Baez said from his locker at Sloan Park. “Everybody kind of sat back, including me, because I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. But this year, I think before the games we’ve all got to be out there, everybody out there, as a team. Stretch as a team, be together as a team so we can play together.”

Related: What to love, and hate, about the Cubs heading into 2020

The star shortstop's comments certainly track. Maddon is widely considered one of the better managers in baseball, but discipline and structure have never been key pillars of his leadership style. He intrinsically trusts players to get their own work done – something that's clearly an appreciated aspect of his personality... until it isn't. World Series hangovers don’t exist four years after the fact but given Maddon’s immediate success in Chicago, it’s easy to understand how players let off the gas pedal. 

“I mean I would just get to the field and instead of going outside and hit BP, I would do everything inside, which is not the same,” he said. “Once I’d go out to the game, I’d feel like l wasn’t ready. I felt like I was getting loose during the first 4 innings, and I should be ready and excited to get out before the first pitch.” 

“You can lose the game in the first inning. Sometimes when you’re not ready, and the other team scores by something simple, I feel like it was because of that. It was because we weren’t ready, we weren’t ready to throw the first pitch because nobody was loose.” 

Baez also promised that this year would be far more organized and rigid. They will stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that may have slipped away during the extended victory lap. That may mean less giant hacks, too. 

“Sometimes we’re up by a lot or down by a lot and we wanted to hit homers,” he said. “That’s really not going to work for the team. It’s about getting on base and giving the at-bat to the next guy, and sometimes we forget about that because of the situation of the game. I think that’s the way you get back to the game – going pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat.” 

Baez was less specific when it came to his contractual discussions with the team, only saying that negotiations were “up and down.” He’d like to play his whole career here and would be grateful if an extension was reached before Opening Day – he’s just not counting on it. The focus right now is on recapturing some of that 2016 drive and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself.

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Magic, buzz and something crazy: It's time for the White Sox to win

Magic, buzz and something crazy: It's time for the White Sox to win

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The White Sox are rebuilt.

No, the rebuild isn’t officially over. You’ll have to wait for after the parade for that. And it’s true that there are plenty of question marks on this roster.

But for the first time in a long time, the White Sox are preparing for a season with expectations. Big ones. The manager set them early, saying he’d be disappointed if his squad didn’t reach the postseason. There hasn’t been October baseball on the South Side in more than a decade. But that’s not stopping anyone in silver and black from realizing that things are different now.

“It’s definitely a little different,” shortstop Tim Anderson said. “It’s more relaxed and we know what we want. We know what we want this spring training versus last spring training. We kind of knew what we wanted, but now we know what we want and we see it. We just have to put the work in and go get it.

“I get a winning vibe, all positive and winning vibes. Everybody knows what we are here to do. We are here to win a championship, and we are here to take it all.”

Everyone at Camelback Ranch is talking about expectations. And whether they’ve voiced their intent to just play better baseball, make the playoffs or win the World Series, there’s one common conclusion: It’s time to win.

The losing has not been fun during the last three rebuilding seasons. The White Sox lost a combined 284 games in 2017, 2018 and 2019, with contending often taking a backseat to development in anticipation of the transition from rebuilding mode to contending mode.

But a host of breakout campaigns from young, core players in 2019 laid the groundwork for Rick Hahn’s front office to make a slew of veteran additions this winter, adding to that core All-Stars like Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion and Gio Gonzalez.

It all adds up to realistic postseason expectations on the South Side. And a feeling that those losing days are firmly in the rearview mirror.

“I think it's just about time for us to start winning,” first baseman Jose Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “It's just that time for us to start winning games and start to be relevant.

“The team that the front office put together, we're going to be able to do it. We have to be united. We need to be strong in good times and bad times if we want to be successful this season. With the guys that we have right now, that's something that's doable. That's our goal.

“I think expectations are high because we all know that this is the time for us to win.”

Certainly Abreu would love to experience that. He hasn’t been a part of a winning team in his major league career, part of six sub-.500 seasons on the South Side. But his love for the organization kept him in a White Sox uniform as he briefly hit free agency this winter. He’ll be wearing those colors for at least another three years thanks to a new deal. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if he never wears any others.

But you don’t have to have sweltered through the dog days of this rebuild to express your excitement for 2020. Something had to lure all those free agents this winter. Grandal, Keuchel, Encarnacion, Gonzalez, they all liked what they saw. Now they’re a big part of why there is such electricity running through White Sox camp.

“It seems like they want to do magic this year and for years to come now,” he said. “I look at it now as, let's keep competing as much as we can and see it from there. The buzz is in the locker room. We are excited. We do want to play, and I think this is the year we're going to push for it.

“They went out and got some guys that wanted to make something happen this year, and I think we have the team to do it. If you’re someone in Chicago watching the White Sox, this is a team to watch, and we’re excited to see that we can put it together.”

It truly does seem that Hahn’s front office did go out and get everything that was missing from this roster, which featured as impressive a collection of young talent as you’ll find but lacked experience, especially winning experience. Even 33-year-old team leader Abreu has never played in the postseason.

Enter the newcomers. Grandal and Encarnacion have appeared in each of the last five postseasons. Keuchel’s been to the playoffs in four of the last five years. Gonzalez played in three of the last four postseasons. New reliever Steve Cishek went to the NL wild card game with the Cubs in 2018.

They have no plans of stopping those streaks.

“Once you get a little taste of the playoffs, that's why you play, is to get that feeling,” Keuchel said. “As much as you want to replicate it in the regular season, for guys who have no playoff experience, I think the regular season is that feeling. But there's another feeling to it that pushes you and wants you to be a better player.

“I told Rick Hahn this, I said four out of the last five years I've made the playoffs, and I don't expect any of these three years (during his contract with the White Sox) to be any different.”

A lot of things will have to go right for the White Sox to make a rapid ascent to the top of the baseball mountain. As mentioned, there are question marks. What will the team get from Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez a year after some ugly results? Will Michael Kopech be the pitcher who was promised prior to his Tommy John surgery? What will Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal do in their first tastes of the major leagues? Will Anderson and Yoan Moncada stay productive if their good luck diminishes? Will Nomar Mazara unlock the potential the White Sox see in their new right fielder?

It all has to work out for the White Sox to compete for the division title and a World Series championship. But isn’t that the case with every team?

This is the time of year when hope springs eternal. Viewing the upcoming season through rose-colored glasses is a February tradition on par with Presidents Day mattress sales.

But the White Sox have good reason to be excited, good reason to be talking playoffs for the first time in so long. That light at the end of the tunnel that Hahn has been talking about for a while now isn’t just visible. It’s bathing these young White Sox.

Of course, they have to prove they can do it. But all this talk? Don’t roll your eyes. It’s not at all crazy.

The White Sox are saving the crazy for the field.

“We have a chance to do something crazy,” Anderson said. “That’s what everybody is talking about, right? So why not own up to it and set the bar high, go to the playoffs and win the championship. That’s the goal, right?

“We didn’t come here to work for nothing. We come here to win championships and make it to the playoffs. That’s no secret. Everybody knows we are here to win championships.”

It’s time to get nuts.

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