White Sox

Bulls' Gibson dilemma mirrors Thunder's Harden situation

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Bulls' Gibson dilemma mirrors Thunder's Harden situation

On certain nights, the Bulls can have their cake and eat it, too. That was the case in Friday's home win over the Timberwolves, in which starting power forward Carlos Boozer scored a preseason-high 24 points and snagged nine rebounds, to go with four apiece of assists and steals, while understudy Taj Gibson notched a double-double of 12 points and 11 boards, along with swatting a trio of Minnesota shot attempts.

However, when games like that occur, it only complicates matters for the organization. It's no secret that the deadline for the Bulls to sign Gibson to a long-term contract extension is Oct. 31, the same day the team opens the regular season by hosting the visiting Sacramento Kings.

On multiple occasions, the fourth-year USC product has expressed his optimism at reaching an agreement, as has his agent, the Chicago-based Mark Bartelstein. Prior to Friday's game, Gibson had some uneven performances in the Bulls' first five exhibition contests, leading to quiet speculation that he was understandably preoccupied with his contract situation and not completely focused at the task hand.

That changed against the Timberwolves, as he played up to the standards -- in terms of his impact, as his value on the floor can't always be accurately measured statistically -- many observers had for him. When Gibson is at his best, he's a force on both ends of the glass, making dynamic plays, displaying his ever-burgeoning offensive game and showcasing his elite defensive abilities, it prompts Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to rave about his ongoing development.

"I think with his experience he has gotten more comfortable. The best leadership you can have is by doing the right things each and every day," said the coach. "He does that. He comes here early, he stays late, he practices hard, prepares well. Hes a good teammate."

His teammates, even new ones like fellow reserve big man Nazr Mohammed, gush similarly, if more overtly: "I love that guy. When you get young players in this league who work as hard as he works and are good guys, it's great to play with guys like that," proclaimed the veteran Chicago native.

"I've played with a lot of good guys and I like the direction the league is going in, as far as teams paying more attention to not only getting good players, but paying more attention to getting good people and he's one of those guys. Look at him, he's out there working now," he continued, pointing out Gibson getting in extra work at the Berto Center after Monday's practice, a common sight. "He's very versatile, can knock down elbow and corner jump shots. He's got a great post game, hook shots and pump fakes. He's explosive, good defender, shot-blocker. What more can I say? He does all the things that he needs to do well and he's still a young player, and he's still working."

Gibson is still most renowned to casual fans for posterizing Miami's Dwyane Wade back in the Bulls-Heat 2011 playoff series, but to those around the league, he's viewed as a solid player with upside capable of helping any team, as well as someone destined for a major payday, either by the end of this month or next summer. Whether the Bulls decide to ante up or not seems like a no-brainer to league sources, simply because of how the team has benefited from the former 26th overall draft pick's contributions since he first arrived in Chicago.

But according to a person with knowledge of the situation, the two sides are still a ways apart.

Part of that could be due to the fact that it's hard to put a price tag on what Gibson brings to the table -- versatility, efficiency and a host of other intangibles that don't necessarily include being a protoypical top-tier player at his position, with the 20-and-10 numbers to go along with that label -- and if he's seeking a similar deal to his peers, in the 8-10 million per year range, that would be tough to justify with four other players, including one, Boozer, who starts at his position already making eight-figure annual salaries. Because when Boozer's at his best, rebounding with authority, knocking down an assortment of mid-range shots, making strong post moves, setting up teammates with his underrated, passing, running the floor in transition and determined to make a concerted effort within the Bulls' vaunted defense, it leads Thibodeau to effusively praise the much-maligned player.

"I like the way Carlos played. He's been practicing well and I thought he got going early. He got into a good rhythm. We were playing inside-out. We've got to search him out more in transition. He was running the floor hard. We've got to make sure we're finding him," he said. "We've been stressing playing inside-out more. He's got to get touches in there and I thought they did a good job of seeking him out early in the game, and they were giving him more than one look. So, he's running the floor. If he has his man pinned in the paint with two feet in the paint, his numbers have shown that he's got to get the ball and he did a much better job, I think, of sealing when the ball was swung. He's got to continue to work on that and I thought his effort on the board was good. He was a multiple-effort type guy Friday and he's capable of doing that all the time."

More and more, Boozer himself shies away from specifically acknowledging his own positive outings, even when absolutely warranted, as he's perhaps weary of the constant brow-beating he takes from fans and the media alike, and more focused on letting his game do the talking.

"Every week, I'm getting a little better. Every week, we're getting a little bit better, getting a little more comfortable with each other out there again and improving. That's the biggest thing, trying to improve every day," he said. "The regular season will be here soon and I think everybody loves having a good game. That gets your confidence going."

In an ideal world, the Bulls would be able to hang on to both players, riding out one of the league's top positional duos until at least the end of Boozer's contract. But the reality of the NBA's new salary-cap structure forces the front office's hand, giving them the options of cutting costs significantly (the team hasn't yet used the amnesty provision, something every franchise can use once over the life of the current collective-bargaining agreement; presumably, Boozer would be the casualty next summer) in order to pay Gibson without penalty when his new deal kicks in, letting him hit the open market (a la the departed Omer Asik; Gibson would likely fetch a similarly appealing offer) with the ability to match, simply letting him walk or an even more unlikely scenario, trading him.

Believe the organization's brass when you hear how much they value Gibson, a point of pride for the Bulls, who unearthed a gem -- he was a first-team NBA all-rookie team selection and a starter for the majority of his debut campaign -- that many didn't even see as a worthy first-round pick. But also know that stranger things have happened and in comparison to the dilemma facing the Bulls' preseason opponent Tuesday night, Oklahoma City, they're in far less dire straits.

Reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year award winner James Harden, a gold medalist from this past summer's Olympics, is in the same boat as Gibson and while the Bulls understand they'll have to make a hefty financial commitment to hold off suitors, it pales in comparison to the near certainty that Harden will command a max contract. The Thunder can appeal to the shooting guard all they want about the opportunity their current group, which includes scoring champion Kevin Durant, fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook and last season's league shot-blocking leader, Serge Ibaka -- who himself was rewarded with a new long-term deal over the summer -- has for years to come, but it's hard to argue that Harden would not only make out better elsewhere financially, but also have the chance to showcase his unique talents on an individual stage.

Mohammed, who remains close with his former teammates, reluctantly shared his view of the situation with CSNChicago.com.

"It's not for me to think about, to be honest with you. As a honest and as a friend, one thing every guy in this league always says is, 'Hey, get your money.' You want to see other guys get their money, get paid. He's in a position where he can do both win and get paid, so it comes down to how he feels about it," said the center, revealing a basic truth about both the NBA and the world as a whole. "I don't know how much they offered him, I don't know how far they're apart. All I know is that James is a good guy, I love the dude and I want him to get his money, and at the same time, I'm a fan of the Thunder organization, I'm a fan of his teammates and I would love to see him get his money, and still be able to stay with that organization, but it's business and I don't get into people's business. I wouldn't want anybody telling me about my business because they don't know what's going on behind closed doors."

That last sentence might be the most salient point when it comes to outside opinions about the contract negotiations of athletes, as fans, on an increasingly frequent basis, blister organizations for not doing enough to retained beloved players or accuse former favorite players, who typically have 15 years, at best, to maximize their earning potential after years of hard work to get to the highest level of their sport, of disloyalty for leaving for perceived greener pastures, financial or otherwise.

Look, based off a semi-educated guess, it appears likely that Gibson remains a Bull in the foreseeable future, but if he doesn't, that blame shouldn't rest with either the team or the player himself, but rather the fact that both sides -- in Gibson's case, making the best decision for his future and for the Bulls, predicting what basketball and financial decisions will get them back on the path of title contention -- have to make the most prudent long-term choice and unfortunately, that probably doesn't include the Bulls having their cake and eating it, too.

After Reynaldo Lopez said White Sox 'looked like clowns' in Cleveland, Rick Renteria fine with his pitcher's comments

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USA TODAY

After Reynaldo Lopez said White Sox 'looked like clowns' in Cleveland, Rick Renteria fine with his pitcher's comments

The White Sox are on a seven-game losing streak and are 25 games below .500.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the losses have piled up in a season that was always going to be about player development and advancing the rebuilding effort. Rick Hahn didn’t call this the hardest part of the rebuild for nothing.

But losing is fun for no one, and to be in the midst of such results on an everyday basis can unsurprisingly cause frustration to build.

The most verbalized display of that frustration to date came earlier this week, when at the end of a sweep at the hands of the division-rival Cleveland Indians, pitcher Reynaldo Lopez said he and his teammates “looked like clowns.”

“It’s unacceptable for us to look the way we looked today,” Lopez told reporters, including MLB.com’s Scott Merkin, through a translator after Wednesday’s 12-0 loss in Cleveland. “Nobody is happy about the way we looked today. Honestly, we looked like clowns there, starting with me. But I know we can do better. It’s a matter of us to keep grinding, improving and working hard.”

Calling the people you work with “clowns” might cause some problems in the average workplace. But the leader of this team, manager Rick Renteria, was fine with what Lopez said and complimented him for making the comments, not a dissimilar reaction to the one he had after veteran pitcher James Shields said he didn’t care about the rebuild and wanted to win now earlier this season.

“Good for him,” Renteria said of Lopez on Friday. “I think he was just speaking what everybody was probably sensing. I think nobody was hiding it. I think the players knew it. I think we addressed it a little bit. You know, when the pitcher comes out — I mean, he took accountability for himself, that’s one of the things we were talking about, that’s a good thing.

“I think when these guys express themselves to each other and make it known that we expect certain things and we’re not doing those things and we want to get back to what we’ve always preached.

“I think they’re all accountable. They look in the mirror. They understand, I believe, that he was speaking from a place of trying to get us back to understanding that there’s a level of play that you expect, there’s a level of focus and concentration that you’re looking to have, and it’s the only way you have a chance in order to compete.

“I mean, you’re playing against some of the best teams in the game of baseball. You need to have that focus and concentration in order to give yourself a chance. He just made it known.”

As Renteria kept saying, Lopez was just as hard on himself, and he had a right to be. He allowed five runs on six hits and four walks in just 4.1 innings. Surely he’d be happy to avoid the Indians again this season: In two starts against them, he’s allowed 11 earned runs on 14 hits over seven innings.

But he wasn’t alone in Wednesday’s ugliness. The offense mustered only two hits in the shutout, Yoan Moncada committed another fielding error, and the bullpen allowed seven more runs, six of them charged to Bruce Rondon.

Similar vocalizations of this team’s frustrations have come from the likes of Hahn, Renteria and Shields. But now it’s coming from one of the young players who are the reason for this organization’s bright future. Lopez has pitched as well as any White Sox pitcher this season, and he figures to be in the mix for a spot in the team’s rotation of the future.

“I think it speaks volumes for him,” Renteria said. “You can’t be scared to voice what you believe is, in your opinion, something that you’re viewing, especially (about) yourself. And then you can direct it, if you need to, to the rest of the club. And I think he did a nice job. I thought he did it very respectfully, to be honest.”

The level of talent on this roster obviously isn’t what the White Sox hope it will be in the coming years, and because of the development happening in the minor leagues, many of the big league team’s current players aren’t expected to be around when things transition from rebuilding to contending.

But the attitude and identity that made “Ricky’s boys don’t quit” a rallying cry is still expected to be on display every day. It’s hard to find that kind of thing in a 12-0 loss.

Of course these players don’t want to lose, and Lopez’s comments are a way of saying that. Hence why the manager of the supposed no-quit boys was happy to hear them.

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
 
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."