Cubs

Bulls practice patience this offseason

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Bulls practice patience this offseason

As long as patience isn't a euphemism for being content, the Bulls offseason -- widely panned as among one of the most underwhelming in the NBA -- isn't nearly as bad as many observers are making it out to be.
Yes, the majority of the "Bench Mob" is gone, replaced by the likes of Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Vladimir Radmanovic, Nazr Mohammed and the return of Kirk Hinrich. But just because "financial decisions" heavily influenced this summer's moves doesn't mean the sky is falling.As important as his interior presence was to the team's success over the past two seasons, backup center Omer Asik wasn't slated to play heavy minutes with a healthy Joakim Noah in the lineup. More importantly, Asik wanted a bigger role, something the Bulls couldn't offer especially not at the price of approximately 15 million in the third year of his new contract with the Rockets. Robinson (all 5-foot-9 of him) isnt your prototypical point guard. Mohammed isn't a spry, young 7-footer, but he'll be serviceable in Asik's role. Jimmy Butler, based on his summer-league play, should be able to capably step in for Ronnie Brewer. Hinrich will be a slightly older version of the "Captain Kirk" Chicago last witnessed up-close two years ago. Belinelli has the ability to approximate Kyle Korver's production. Belinellis defense may leave something to be desired, but Korver wasn't exactly a stopper on that end of the floor when he first suited up for the Bulls. Meanwhile, Radmanovic brings a new offensive dimension to the lineup with his "stretch" power-forward game.But what made the "Bench Mob" great was its chemistry. Each player knew his role and the uncanny knack for raising their games Korver's unconscious shooting sprees, Brewer's ability to get into passing lanes on defense and to the rim on offense, C.J. Watson's blend of playmaking and scoring, John Lucas III's instant offense, Asik's subtle, game-changing defense on nights when nobody else on the team had it going. For better or worse, their games will change in their new situations as will that of Taj Gibson, who will likely have an expanded role because of the collective dynamic disappearing.From a purely financial perspective the replacements can be viewed as cost-cutting personnel moves, though an argument can be made that in a relatively weak Eastern Conference, bringing back the old crew and waiting for a boost from Derrick Rose's eventual return would give them as good a shot of getting past the Heat and to the NBA Finals as anybody. However, at the price of Asik's deal, signing Lucas to a multi-year contract and the option years for Korver, Brewer and Watson, it's understandable why the decision to tread water was made probably much earlier than most realize.Don't confuse action with progress, however, as Miami and Boston are and were already at the top of the East. It's questionable how much New York, Indiana and Philadelphia really improved and Brooklyn, for all of its splashy signings and spending, may be a playoff team but can't be considered a true contender just yet.But it's the idea that the Bulls must wait until the summer of 2014 to make another run that's puzzling, particularly if Rose, in the early prime of his career and just beginning a five-year max contract, can begin his return to form as one of the league's elite players in the 2013-14 campaign. While patience (there's that word again) is required in monitoring Rose's recovery this season, there's no reason to prematurely place restrictions on where he'll be more than a year after his ACL injury. And theres certainly no justification for wasting another season of the team's core, which also includes Noah, a presumably re-signed Gibson and for now, All-Star Luol Deng -- whose current contract expires in the 2014 offseason.It seems likely Carlos Boozer will be amnestied before his deal ends, but the assumption is that the Bulls will make use of that provision prior to the 2014-15 season and dovetail it with the 2014 free-agent class and the expected arrival of 2011 draft pick Nikola Mirotic from Spain. The theory goes like this: Mirotic would sit behind Gibson for seasoning then eventually slide into a starting role unless he proves to be capable of playing small forward at both ends, which would put him in position, as a rookie, to replace Deng. Either way, that plan requires a leap of faith as the Bulls would be able to add a marquee free agent: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay can opt out that summer, but it seems unlikely theyll sacrifice money or could find it hard to leave their current locales. Meanwhile, they could pursue an unrestricted free agent like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Paul Pierce, aging stars all or just wait another year when All-Star Kevin Love and others are available in 2015, but that seems like an eternity away.Instead, the Bulls could be better off looking toward next summer and targeting specific complimentary stars to pair with a starting lineup of Gibson -- who, equipped with a long-term extension, would be starting at power forward -- Rose, who could still be finding his stride, Noah and Deng. It smacks of the summer of 2010, except that young Bulls team -- Gibson was coming off a promising rookie season, but wasn't yet considered a consensus future full-time starter, while Rose hadn't reached MVP levels of play, Noah didn't have his long-term deal and a pre-All-Star Deng was perceived somewhat unfavorably in some circles -- was all about potential and hadn't done anything to differentiate themselves from the pack of teams with cap space that offseason.Outside of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, the free-agent class of 2013 isn't much ballyhooed, but it might be the best sure-shot opportunity the Bulls have to make a major addition while having enough core pieces on hand to do some real damage. And although there aren't any true superstars in the group, taking a run at one of the crops top shooting guards (James Harden, Tyreke Evans and Monta Ellis, if he exercises his early-termination option, are among those who could fit the bill) might be a more worthwhile gamble than sitting tight while the gap between the Bulls and the league's current elite teams, seemingly unfazed by salary-cap penalties imposed on their free-wheeling spending, widens.But back to the here and now. The Bulls head into this season with an identity as a blue-collar defensive juggernaut with a true superstar, going back-to-back seasons leading the NBA in regular-season wins, one of the game's best coaches in Tom Thibodeau -- whose contract situation needs to be addressed to help ensure the teams long-term success and respect outside the organization -- and after a trip to the conference finals that must feel like ages ago to fans, a recent track record of success. The upcoming season won't exactly be a wash -- book it: Chicago will be a playoff team -- but while it's fine to have lowered expectations for a year, it's another story to let your peers keep putting distance between you and title contention when the promise of future stars coming aboard isn't guaranteed.Even with Asik in Houston, the Bulls' strength is still their frontcourt. Noah is a top-10 NBA center and Gibson is a luxury to have coming off the bench as a starting-caliber power forward, so if the much-maligned Boozer departs (along with Richard Hamilton, who has a team option for 2013-14; combined, the two former All-Stars would give the Bulls approximately 20 million to afford to keep Gibson and bring in a star-level free agent), the cupboard won't be bare up front, especially given that Deng is an above-average rebounder for his position. Adding one of the aforementioned shooting guard trio to a starting backcourt with Rose -- none possesses a flawless game or will come at a discount, especially Harden who is probably the best fit but will be hard to pry from Oklahoma City as a restricted free agent. But the Thunder face a challenge in retaining the 22-year-old Sixth Man of the Year, as well as league-leading shot-blocker Serge Ibaka after signing All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to max deals. Being able to sign Harden would add another primary scorer and playmaking threat, giving the Bulls tremendous balance and another player to help their superstar shoulder the squad's offensive burden.Of course, the Bulls will have additional assets outside of amnesty if a palatable trade appears on the horizon. In addition to shopping Hamilton, for whom the team has a 5 million option for 2013-14, Chicago also has a 5 million trade exception acquired from Atlanta in the Korver deal, which would need to be used during the upcoming season. The Bulls also retain the now-legendary protected pick from Charlotte as well as Deng's contract. The franchise will have to do decide how and if the current longest-tenured Bull fits into its future equation, though they'll be hard-pressed to find a better player on the open market or get anything close to equal value in a trade scenario.Deng's hypothetical, but not unreasonable, situation aside -- particularly when considering that new additions Mohammed and Radmanovic are on one-year veteran-minimum deals and both Hinrich and Belinelli were signed to manageable two-year contracts, Butler would be on the third season of his rookie contract and first-round draft choice Marquis Teague will be entering his second NBA campaign assuming he improves enough to be a factor by then. Adding another veteran big man or two to replace Mohammed and fill Gibson's void on the bench will be necessary. After Malcolm Thomas was such a revelation in summer league, adding him or another young big man with upside to develop as a minimum-salaried, fifth post player this season with an opportunity for an expanded role in the future makes some sense. But the Bulls wouldn't need a dramatic overhaul, just a tweak or two, similar to the thought process when Rip Hamilton was signed before last season.However, this wouldn't be an aging veteran, albeit an established one, with injury concerns -- another reason to avoid splurging for the fading superstars in 2014. It would be a younger complement to Rose, helping him to truly believe that his hometown team -- to which he committed five more years without hesitation before his nightmare of an injury-plagued campaign began -- is serious about trying to win in the near future.
That, perhaps, is the most compelling reason for the Bulls to strike sooner than later. It can be accepted that the organization is pacing itself along with his recovery process now, but when he returns to the court -- while the preached mindset will be patience -- anybody that's ever been around Rose knows how hungry he is to win a championship. And nobody wants to be in the position of explaining why he's back to creating highlights on the court nightly, his old teammates were jettisoned in favor of new running mates who can't be described as upgrades and steps aren't being taken to rectify the situation.Without pretending to be a mind reader, Rose is astute enough to understand that some hard decisions had to be made this summer, in no small part because of his devastating injury. If he isn't causing a ruckus about the situation, Bulls fans should feel the same way as long as this phase is temporary and the team is only driving in the right lane until they can again purchase a vehicle with enough horsepower that they can keep up with the speedsters in the passing lane.
Although he's still young, Rose is now heading into his fifth year as a professional. While Chicago has basically watched him grow up over the years, the city shouldn't be surprised when -- if he doesn't have the supporting cast to get to the promised land -- his patience runs thin after a while.Until then, there's no reason to be up in arms about the Bulls' activity, or lack thereof, this offseason as the moves made by the organization -- while not popular -- indeed make fiscal sense. Its also clear that the belief that keeping the "Bench Mob" intact -- remember, Brewer, Watson and Korver would have been around for only one more season each -- and the chance that when Rose returns, the team makes a playoff run wasn't a realistic option for the front office and from a basketball standpoint.
The sum was greater than its parts, making it an easy choice. Breaking up a beloved contender hurts, even for members of the media who had grown fond of the group. But waiting a year for another run at a title can be tolerated and Belinelli's talk of championships during his press conference Tuesday at the Berto Center -- at least in his second season in Chicago -- won't ring so hollow locally.

The Cubs are ahead of the game in MLB's brand new world

The Cubs are ahead of the game in MLB's brand new world

"BINGO!"

Joe Maddon couldn't contain his glee as he was told there is actual scientific evidence that proves the Launch Angle Revolution has not had any impact on the uptick in homers over the last couple seasons.

The reason MLB players were hitting the ball into the bleachers more than ever before in 2017 was because of the way baseballs are made now, reducing the wind resistence and causing balls to carry more.

But all these players changing their swing path to get more lift on the ball? Not a thing for the group as a whole (h/t MLB.com):


But in analyzing Statcast™ data from the measurement tool's 2015 inception through 2017, the committee found no evidence that batter behavior, en masse, has been a contributing factor toward the homer surge. In fact, exit velocities decreased slightly from 2016 to 2017, spray angles from the time studied were stable and a small increase in launch angles was attributable primarily to, as the study refers to them, "players with lesser home run talents."

Basically, the long-ball surge was global, affecting players from all spectrums of homer-hitting ability and irrespective of their approach.

"Going into this, I thought that was going to be the magic bullet, the smoking gun," Nathan said. "But it wasn't."


Hence the "BINGO!" cry from Maddon, who has been very vocal in the fight against the Launch Angle Revolution this season.

The end result is the study will eventually lead to baseballs being returned to normal levels and a more uniform way of storing the balls moving forward. Thus, homers figure to eventually return to normal levels, too, and everybody who was caught up in the Launch Angle Revolution may be left behind.

It's the changing landscape of baseball and we've already seen the after-effects this year: April was the first month in MLB history where there were more strikeouts than basehits.

Why? Because strikeouts are a natural byproduct of the Launch Angle Revolution as players are swinging up on the ball more and sacrificing contact for power and lift.

That, coupled with an increase in velocity and higher usage of relievers, has led to more strikeouts.

It makes perfect sense — it's tougher for a player to try to catch up to 98+ mph at the top of the strike zone with an uppercut swing.

"It's one of those things that sounds good, but it doesn't help you," Maddon said of launch angle. "There's certain things that people really want to promote and talk about, but it doesn't matter. When a hitter's in the box, when you're trying to stare down 96 or a slider on the edge, the last thing you're thinking about is launch angle.

"Now when it comes to practice, you could not necessarily work on angles — your body works a certain way. Like I've said before, there's guys that might've been oppressively bad or they just had groundballs by rolling over the ball all the time So of course you may want to alter that to get that smothering kind of a swing out of him.

"But if you're trying to catch up to velocity, if you're trying to lay back and I could keep going on and on. It sounds good."

The idea of hitting the ball hard in the air has been around for decades in baseball, pretty much ever since Babe Ruth on some level. It just wasn't able to be quantified or accessed by the public as easily until Statcast came around and made it all mainstream.

The Cubs, however, have been anti-launch-angle to a degree this season. They let go of hitting coach John Mallee (who liked players to hit the ball in the air and pull it) and replaced him with Chili Davis (who teaches the full-field, line-drive approach).

The effects haven't yet yielded results in terms of consistently plating runs or having a better performance in the situational hitting column, but the contact rate is, in fact, up.

Here is the list of Cubs hitters who currently boast a career best mark in strikeout rate:

Kris Bryant
Javy Baez
Willson Contreras
Addison Russell
Jason Heyward
Kyle Schwarber

Even Ben Zobrist is very close to his career mark and Anthony Rizzo is right at his career line.

Some of that jump in contact rate can be attributed to natural development and maturation of young hitters, but the Cubs are buying into the new way of doing things and it's paying off.

It's also probably the way the game is going to shift, with an emphasis on contact going to become more important the less balls are flying out of the yard.

The Cubs have seen firsthand how to beat the best pitching in the postseason and they know that cutting down on strikeouts and "moving the baseball" (as Maddon likes to put it) can help manufacture runs in low-scoring, tight affairs in October.

Now science is supporting those theories and Major League Baseball teams will have to adjust. 

The Cubs, however, are at least a step ahead of the game.

It's a long game — the offensive strides will take time to fully take effect even for the Cubs, who are at least a full offseason and two months ahead of the curve in terms of bucking the Launch Angle Revolution.

Maddon concedes that launch angle is a cool stat to see on the video board after homers, but other than that, he doesn't see much of a use for it, pointing to Kyle Schwarber's laser-line-drive homers having the same effect as Kris Bryant's moonshots.

However, Maddon does believe there's a place for launch angle and exit velocity in the game, though mostly for front offices trying to acquire players (think "Moneyball").

"As a teaching tool, you either come equipped with or without," Maddon said. "It's like you buy a new car, you either got this or you don't. Sometimes you can add some things occasionally, but for the most part, this is what you are.

"I like inside the ball, top half of the ball, inner half of the ball, stay long throughout the ball, utilize the whole field. I still think that's the tried and true approach and I'm not stuck in the mud on this by any means.

"The harder pitchers throw the baseball, the more laying back is going to be less effective."

Theo Epstein brushes aside rumors: 'There's essentially zero trade talks involving the Cubs'

Theo Epstein brushes aside rumors: 'There's essentially zero trade talks involving the Cubs'

No, the Cubs are not currently talking to the Baltimore Orioles about bringing Manny Machado to the North Side of Chicago.

So says Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations who met with the media at Wrigley Field ahead of Friday's series opener with the San Francisco Giants.

Epstein vehemently shot down the notion of trade talks and specified the major diffence between trade rumors and trade talks, while refusing to comment on Machado in particular.

"I'm not addressing any specific rumor or any player with another team," Epstein said. "I would never talk about that in a million years. The simple way to put it is there's been a lot of trade rumors involving the Cubs and there's essentially zero trade talks involving the Cubs.

"There's a real disparity between the noise and the reality and unfortunately, sometimes that puts a player or two that we have in a real tough circumstance. And that's my job to clarify there's nothing going on right now.

"We have more than enough ability to win the division, win the World Series and we really need to focus on our roster and getting the most out of our ability and finding some consistency. Constant focus outside the organization doesn't do us any good, especially when it's not based in reality right now."

The Cubs have presented a united front publicly in support of Addison Russell, whose name has been the one bandied about most as a potential leading piece in any move for Machado.

After all, the Cubs have won a World Series and never finished worse than an NLCS berth with Russell as their shortstop and he's only 24 with positive signs of progression offensively.

Trading away 3.5 years of control of Russell for 3-4 months of Machado is the type of bold, go-for-it move the Cubs did in 2016 when their championship drought was well over 100 years.

Now, the championship drought is only one season old and the window of contention is expected to remain open until through at least the 2021 season.

Epstein likes to point out that every season is sacred, but at what cost? The Cubs front office is still very much focused on the future beyond 2018.

"Everybody's talking about making trades in May — the first part of the season is trying to figure out who you are," Epstein said. "What are the strengths of the club? What are the weaknesses of the club? What's the character of the club? What position is the club gonna be in as we get deeper in the season? What's our short-term outlook? What's our long-term outlook? What's the chemistry in the clubhouse?

"All those things. It's a process to get there and figure it out. If you rush to those kinds of judgments, you can oftentimes make things worse. I think it's important to figure out exactly who you are and give guys a chance to play and find their level and see how all the pieces fit together before you make your adjustments."

So there's no chance we could see the Cubs once again jump the market and make an early deal like they did last year for Jose Quintana or five years ago for Jake Arrieta? Will they definitely wait another five weeks until July to make a move?

"It's just the natural order of things," Epstein said. "We wouldn't be opposed to doing something, but that's not the case right now. It's not happening."