Bulls

Cashner will bring the heat for Padres

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Cashner will bring the heat for Padres

PEORIA, Ariz. Listen to the scouts talking in the back of the press box, or follow it on Twitter, and you get a sense of the buzz building around Andrew Cashner, the velocity hitting 103, 104 mph.

A Padres insider downplayed those superhuman numbers, saying the radar gun is hot in Peoria, but also didnt dispute that Cashner is blowing away hitters with 100 mph heat.

Cashner doesnt get caught up in the hype. He hears things, but doesnt pay much attention to the triple digits, or feel the need to analyze it. Its almost as if hed rather pull the phone from his locker and show you a picture of the swamp buggy he designed for duck hunting trips.

The new administration at Clark and Addison determined that Cashner would max out as a reliever. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod drafted and developed Anthony Rizzo with the Red Sox, and then made him a key prospect in the Adrian Gonzalez deal.

Cubs executives framed last Januarys trade as giving up a late-inning power arm to get their first baseman and clubhouse leader of the future. The Padres who visit HoHoKam Stadium on Monday made a different calculation and see Cashner as a potential rotation piece for 2013 and beyond.

Its not so much proving them wrong. Its just proving (it) to myself, Cashner said last week. Whatever sport you play, there is always going to be doubters and Im always trying to prove to myself that I can pitch here and I can start.

Cashner has notched 11 strikeouts and allowed one run in eight Cactus League innings. The 25-year-old right-hander picked up this spring where he left off last September one run in six appearances after a rotator cuff strain nearly wiped out his entire 2011 season.

When I came back, everyone was doubting that I was healthy, Cashner said. Every night I was going out there and giving everything I had and it was still: Are you healthy? Theyve never once asked me over here if Im healthy or not. I just kind of came in from Day 1 (and) they havent held me back at all.

Theyve let me be me and thats been the biggest thing.

Cashner grew up in Texas watching Kerry Wood and fair or not drew those comparisons from team officials and the Chicago media because of his background and build (6-foot-6, 200 pounds).

Cashner got hurt at a time when the organization was still somewhat sensitive after what Wood and Mark Prior went through, and fans certainly hadnt forgotten.

The overlooked part was that the Cubs rationalized selecting Cashner with the 19th overall pick in the 2008 draft, in part, because he was so fluid as the Texas Christian University closer, and was once athletic enough to be a high school shortstop.

San Diego manager Bud Black still sees many of those same qualities in Cashner. Black pitched 15 seasons in the big leagues, and was the pitching coach on the 2002 Angels team that won the World Series. The Padres also have a strong reputation for developing pitching talent.

He has three pitches that he throws for strikes, so I think the repertoire is there, Black said. Its a repeatable delivery, everything you look for (in a starter). Weve done a couple of things with his stride, just shortened it a touch, but its an athletic guy that has good body control, good coordination (and) the arm works easy. I definitely see a potential starter.

In the past, Cubs officials were split as to whether Cashner would develop as a starter or a closer (that too, Black said). But the Padres manager just wants Cashner to get acclimated to a new team after throwing only 10.2 innings in the big leagues last season.

There are some philosophical things that hes got to buy into that we believe in, Black said, (like) the down-and-away fastball. Some guys are so hell-bent on pitching in. (You) got to pitch in, both for effect and for strikes. But the foundation of pitching is locating the ball down and away. Because of his velocity, people have said: Hey, just throw in, they cant get around on it.

Cashner was blindsided by the trade, but he has nothing bad to say about the Cubs. Former teammates are some of his best friends, and he credits the coaching staff for teaching him how to pitch.

But Cashner will be happy in San Diego, a laid-back city that matches his personality. He knows theres no better place in baseball to pitch than Petco Park. He doesnt need a radar gun to realize that hes never felt this sharp or been this excited for a season to start.

Last year was the biggest year for me as far as learning the business side of baseball (and) growing as a player, Cashner said. (It) made me more mentally tough than anything, just everything that I went through and (how) everything went (for the team) as a whole. I feel like I got maybe a chip on my shoulder this year and Im more focused and more determined.

Im a big believer in everything happens for a reason. Well find out.

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

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USA TODAY

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

In talking with Bulls' fans over the summer and reading posts on social media, it seems like expectations for the 2018-19 season are all over the board.

Some fans think the Bulls will finish at or slightly above the .500 mark and contend for a playoff spot, others are looking for more modest improvement with a win total in the low to mid 30's, while others believe Fred Hoiberg's team will be among the worst in the league.

Reality probably lies in the middle ground. Bulls' General Manager Gar Forman told us on media day the goals will be to win as many games as possible while still focusing on individual player development. The Bulls will again be among the NBA's youngest teams with 9 of their top 11 players under the age of 25. 

Bulls' Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear at the end of last year's 27-55 campaign that he couldn't endure another season of manipulating the roster and player rotations to improve draft lottery chances, while Hoiberg enters the 4th season of his 5 year contract needing to show improvement to keep his position as head coach. 

Clearly, no one in the front office or coaching staff is talking about tanking with the hopes of landing a top 3 pick in the 2019 draft. The Bulls will play to win this season, but they’ll also have to ride out the normal highs and lows of competing with such a young roster.

So, as a Bulls' fan, what should you be watching for this season to judge how much the team has improved? Here's what I'll be looking for:

1. Will Lauri Markkanen take the next step towards All-Star status?

Losing your best player on the 3rd day of training camp isn't the ideal way to start a season, but the good news is Markkanen should return from his elbow injury around Thanksgiving with plenty of time to re-establish himself as one of the league's rising stars. The 1st team All-Rookie selection put on needed bulk and muscle in the off-season to improve his low post game and he's ready to punish smaller defenders who switch on to him in pick and roll situations. Markkanen has all the tools to become a top 30 player in the league. The question is, how much closer will he come to reaching that status this season?

2. Is Zach LaVine all the way back?

Judging by what we saw during the preseason, LaVine appears to be ready to pick up where he left off during his 3rd year in Minnesota when he was averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting nearly 39% from 3 point range before an ACL injury set him back. LaVine should average 20 points a game or more this season, but how much he improves in other areas of his game (particularly on the defensive end), will be the key to whether the Bulls made the right decision in matching that 4 year, 78 million dollar offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings back in July. If LaVine reclaims his status as one of the league’s most promising wing players, the Bulls will have at least two foundation pieces in place. 

3. Can the backcourt pairing of LaVine and Kris Dunn succeed long term?

The Bulls' young guards didn't get a chance to play many minutes together last season because of LaVine's ACL rehab and Dunn's scary fall after making a breakaway dunk against Golden State. Both players are most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and both showed the ability to make big shots at the end of games. Dunn will need to sacrifice some of his offensive game to get the ball into the hands of the team's best shooters, but he's already one of the better defensive point guards in the league and looks like a potential leader on future Bulls' playoff squads. Developing better chemistry with LaVine is critical in year 2 of the rebuild.

4. Is Wendell Carter Jr. the answer at center?

The Bulls used the 7th pick in last June's draft to grab the 6'10" big man, who played in the considerable shadow of Marvin Bagley during their one season together at Duke. Carter Jr. showed enough during Summer League play and pre-season games to move into the starting line-up ahead of 10 year veteran Robin Lopez, but whether he's ready to stay there is another question. Carter Jr. is an excellent rim protector and also has the lateral quickness to switch out on to smaller perimeter players, but right now he's a reluctant shooter. Given the fact Carter Jr. is only 19, it will be fascinating to track how much he improves throughout his rookie season. Did the Bulls strike gold again with the #7 pick?

5. How does Jabari Parker fit?

More than a few eyebrows were raised around the league when the Bulls decided to sign the Chicago native to a 2 year, 40 million dollar free agent contract. Parker was expecting to move to the small forward spot, but returned to power forward when Markkanen was injured, and then moved to the bench when the coaching staff wasn't happy with how the starting line-up was playing early in the pre-season. Parker could be a valuable weapon as a big-time scorer and facilitator with the 2nd unit, but if he's unhappy with his role or playing time, this season could turn out to be an unhappy homecoming. How Parker adapts to the challenges of establishing his role will determine whether the Bulls exercise the team option on the 2nd year of his contract. 

6. Which other players will be part of the roster when the Bulls are a playoff team again?

Questions remain about a number of the team's young players. Bobby Portis has established himself as a legitimate NBA scorer and team leader; his improved 3 point shooting will be critical to the team's success, whether he starts or comes off the bench. But after failing to reach agreement on a contract extension by the Monday deadline, will Portis be chasing stats as he looks ahead to restricted free agency next summer? Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and rookie Chandler Hutchison will all have to make the most of limited minutes, with each player needing to prove to the coaching staff and front office they deserve to be in the rotation long term.

So, don't get caught up in the Bulls chasing some arbitrary win total number. Even though the Eastern Conference is weaker overall than the West, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Miami and Detroit all appear to be likely playoff teams, barring an injury to a key player. 

Hoiberg's offense will continue to emphasize pace, floor spacing and 3 point shooting which should bring out the best in a young and developing roster. 

5 things we have learned after the Blackhawks first 5 games

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USA TODAY

5 things we have learned after the Blackhawks first 5 games

The Blackhawks hahve played five games, all five went to over time, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane each have five goals.

So here are five things we've learned from the Blackhawks first five games.

1.    Blackhawks have a flair for the dramatic:

They are the first team in NHL history with 5 straight overtime games to begin a season. According to Elias, It also has never happened in the history of MLB, NBA or NFL. Not only have they not lost a game in regulation, but they have rallied in the third period in four of their five games. No final period rally was more dramatic than the home opener, when Patrick Kane & Auston Matthews had a three goal trade-off in a :56 second span, complete with a celly battle.

2.    Toews looks like a different player:

Or should I say, he looks like the guy who played a huge role in three Stanley Cups. The captain is faster, hard on the puck and making plays that we haven’t seen in the last few years. His nine points are tied with line-mate Alex DeBrincat for the team lead and amongst the top point getters in the league. Toews said before the season that he was humbled by missing the playoffs and it’s clear he heard the criticism about his lack of offensive production. Hard work this summer and solid chemistry with DeBrincat and Dominik Kahun have paid off in the first two weeks. Toews said he wanted to get back to having fun and so far, he’s had plenty to smile about.

3.    Power Play still needs to be fixed:

It was a major issue last season(ranked 28th) and it’s still a concern this year. They have only cashed in on 2 of 18 power plays, which ranks them 23rd in the NHL. I like the 1-3-1 set up and top unit that includes Kane, Toews, Schmaltz, DeBrincat and Jokiharju. They made a tweak last game, putting DeBrincat at the top of the slot and Schmaltz at the left circle. They are hoping to take advantage of Cat’s quick and accurate shot. The other concern on the power play is the entries. They continue to use the drop pass as their primary way to enter the zone. It’s not been very successful this season. They may need to install one more option on the entry. The bottom line, they won’t make the playoffs if their power play ranks in the bottom third of the league.

4.    Blackhawks blue line is still a work in progress:

Henri Jokiharju has been a tremendous addition to a group that was a major question mark entering the season. Jokiharju is the second best defenseman on the team right now and with Duncan Keith, they are a legit top 4 pairing. The problem with the other two pairs are major inconsistencies. You will see a stretch of solid play, but it’s inevitably followed by a crucial turnover or defensive breakdown. In this loaded central division, a handful of defensive miscues could be the difference in making the playoffs or being on the golf course in April.

5.    Cam isn’t Crow:

Cam Ward has been solid in his first 5 games as a Blackhawk. It’s actually incredible the Hawks are 3-0-2 when you consider Ward has a .879 Sv% and 4.07 GAA. Unlike last season’s fill-ins, Ward has been able to avoid the dreaded soft goal. It still looks like Corey Crawford could return Thursday against Arizona, or this weekend at the latest, when they play back-to-back tilts. Everyone is crossing their fingers that Crow will not experience any setbacks when he returns to the crease. Joel Quenneville said the team doesn’t like to carry 3 goalies, but they may be forced to do that, with uncertainty surrounding Crawford and Anton Forsberg having to pass through waivers before being sent to Rockford. Goaltending is everything in the NHL and in all likelihood the Blackhawks postseason chances still hinge on Crawford returning to the form we’ve seen the last several years.