White Sox

Bulls host Thunder tonight on CSN

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Bulls host Thunder tonight on CSN

The Chicago Bulls welcome last year's Western Conference champions, the Oklahoma City Thunder, to the United Center tonight as the two teams wind down their respective preseason schedules. Tip-off is 7 p.m., and you can catch all the action live on Comcast SportsNet.
The Bulls missed out on the chance to play against 2012 All-Star Kevin Love in their 92-81 win over the Timberwolves last Friday, and they won't be able to square off against the best young tandem in the NBA, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, either, as both will sit out tonight's exhibition. Thunder coach Scott Brooks said it's just a day of rest for the pair, as Oklahoma City will travel home tomorrow to close out their preseason campaign at home against the Mavericks.
Another budding star in the Oklahoma City lineup is shooting guard James Harden. The 23-year-old reigning Sixth Man of the Year is dealing with a groin injury that has held him out of three preseason contests already, although the Thunder do not feel it will hinder him once the season starts.
Harden most recently competed on the USA National Team at the 2012 Olympics, along with Westbrook and Durant. As part of Team USA's practice routine in Las Vegas, the trio went up against the USA Select Team, which included Bulls' power forward Taj Gibson.
Chicago's improving big man enjoyed his experience and got a feel for just how good he can be as an NBA forward. But Gibson and Harden have more in common than just putting on the Red, White and Blue this past summer. Both are impending restricted free agents, and must sign contract extensions by Oct. 31 to avoid hitting the open market.
Harden, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft and Gibson, the No. 26 overall pick, are reportedly working toward signing before the deadline.
The Thunder are in a tight salary cap crunch after signing Durant (86 million), Westbrook (80 million) and forward Serge Ibaka (48 million) to long-term deals the last two seasons.
The Bulls are also dealing with some financial uncertainty. Gar Forman said earlier this offseason that extending Gibson was a priority, but Carlos Boozer's contract and Luol Deng's uncertain future fog up part of the Bulls' salary cap. Still, CSN Bulls Insider Aggrey Sam expects an extension to be completed before the Oct. 31 deadline.
Gibson will be able to make his case for a payday tonight, going up against one of the better defensive frontcourts in the NBA. Along with Ibaka, the league's leading shot blocker a year ago, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins will make life difficult for Gibson, Boozer and Joakim Noah in the middle. Last year the Bulls lost to the Thunder in their only matchup, with Gibson (10 points, 11 rebounds) double-doubling in the loss.
Gibson has averaged 8.4 points and 7.8 rebounds in 23.4 minutes this preseason, but is shooting just 36.2 percent from the field. He's made up for that on the defensive end, where a more aggressive Gibson has blocked 11 shots and made five steals in five games.
The Thunder have struggled defensively in the preseason, allowing 100.0 points per game and opponents to shoot almost 45 percent from the field. The Bulls have averaged 88.4 points in their five preseason games, the third lowest mark in the NBA. That average should improve against a Thunder team resting two of its five top players.
In order to do that, the Bulls will need more consistent scoring from the reserves. Nate Robinson, Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Marco Belinelli have combined to shoot 45-of-142 in the preseason (31.7 percent). While Rip Hamilton (51.1 percent) and Nazr Mohammed (51.4 percent) have played well, the Bulls will rely more on their bench this year without Rose to make up that scoring. A solid showing tonight would be a welcome sight.

White Sox catcher Welington Castillo will reportedly be suspended 80 games for use of PED

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USA TODAY

White Sox catcher Welington Castillo will reportedly be suspended 80 games for use of PED

For the first time since new rules came into effect in 2005, the White Sox will reportedly see a major league player suspended for violating baseball’s ban on performance-enhancing drugs.

Welington Castillo, the team’s biggest offseason addition, will be suspended for 80 games, according to a pair of reports.

The veteran catcher was brought in over the winter to help the rebuilding White Sox in the short and long term. He had a career year offensively and defensively in 2017, and he was acquired to help develop a young pitching staff featuring big pieces of the future like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, and also to swing a solid bat and help this young team learn how to win.

If Castillo proves productive over the course of his two-year deal, the White Sox have a team option that could keep Castillo on the South Side for the 2020 season. That could make him a piece of the puzzle for when the rebuild reaches its apex and the team is ready to start contending for championships. But this news has the potential to change that dramatically.

Zack Collins and Seby Zavala are both having strong offensive seasons at Double-A Birmingham and figure to be the long-term answers behind the plate. But Castillo’s absence from any long-term picture could leave the White Sox without a veteran safety net in the years ahead, depending on how the team decides to react to this news in the coming seasons.

Castillo’s absence for the next 80 games could also have an impact on the development of aforementioned pitchers like Giolito and Lopez. Lopez, in particular, has been throwing really well this season, and Giolito has control issues to work through, as he leads the American League in walks. Without the veteran catcher brought in to help those guys transition to the major league level, how will the transition continue for those two pitchers?

As for who could take Castillo's place on the major league roster, the options are limited. Kevan Smith, who was edged out by Omar Narvaez for the backup-catching job in spring training, is on the disabled list at Triple-A Charlotte, placed there Tuesday. The aforementioned Zavala is also injured at Double-A Birmingham, and it seems far too early to rush Collins to the big leagues. Alfredo Gonzalez is a catcher on the roster at Charlotte. A spot on the 40-man roster would need to be freed up to bring him to Chicago.

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."