Bears

The clock is ticking on the Cubs and Ryan Dempster

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The clock is ticking on the Cubs and Ryan Dempster

Ryan Dempster packed his Cubs duffel bag and handed it to a clubhouse attendant late Thursday afternoon. He buttoned the cuffs to his yellow dress shirt, knotted a tie and put on his plaid navy blue sport coat. His locker remained intact.

After a 4-2 win over the Miami Marlins, there were indications that Dempster was on his way to St. Louis, and not yet traded to a contender. That morning, he said there was nothing imminent, not that I know of, and looked forward to making his next start on Friday night against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

But Dempster looked like someone who was taking it all in, throwing batting practice to his young son Brady and running the bases at Wrigley Field before the game. This is his ninth season in Chicago, a city he loves, but his time appears to be coming to an end.

Hours later, the Cubs announced they had acquired right-hander Justin Germano from the Boston Red Sox for a cash consideration and designated Jairo Asencio for assignment. The word out of Des Moines was that Casey Coleman had been scratched at Triple-A Iowa, perhaps because the Cubs may need a starter on short notice.

Its kind of business as usual, Dempster said. Nothing changesIm focused on getting out there and getting ready to pitch.

The trade deadline isnt until July 31, but its hard to see Dempsters value going much higher. He hasnt given up a run in 33 consecutive innings, a streak that was interrupted for a trip to the disabled list with a sore lat muscle. Would the Cubs run the risk of another injury?

All this chatter comes at a time when the Cubs (38-53) are playing as well as anyone in baseball. Theyve won 14 of their last 19 games, and you saw the formula on Thursday against Mark Buehrle and the Marlins (44-48).

Paul Maholm went eight innings and gave up one run. They got just enough offense from Alfonso Soriano, who hit his 150th homer in a Cubs uniform, and lefty-killers Jeff Baker and Reed Johnson (combined four hits, two RBI, one run scored, one sick catch in right field). Carlos Marmol has now converted his last 10 save opportunities.

Obviously, theres rumors and whatnot going around, but we joke around were going to start adding pieces, Baker said. We take a lot of pride (in what we do) and obviously we dont want to let down the people that believe in us. Going out there and playing better baseball is part of the gig. Hopefully, we can just stay under the radar and keep going.

That becomes far more difficult without Dempster, who has no-trade rights and a 1.86 ERA. Even Maholms recent hot streak 4-0 with a 0.89 ERA in his last five starts could make him an attractive trade chip.

You understand thats part of the season, Maholm said. The trade deadlines coming. If your names out there, then obviously somebody wants you, and thats not a terrible thing. I signed here to play here and to win here.

Whatever happens in the next 10-12 days, I think everybody in the clubhouse is professional enough to deal with it. They come in each day, prepare and expect to win.

The Cubs quietly stole a series that was supposed to be a media circus all about the returns of Ozzie Guillen and Carlos Zambrano. The former White Sox manager still loves pointing to his ring finger and tweaking Cubs fans, but he respects Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.

Guillen said he loves the way Darwin Barney plays and thinks Starlin Castro is going to be a superstar. The Marlins manager described Anthony Rizzo with one word: Wow.

They have a good thing going, Guillen said. Theyre going in the right direction. Its going to take a little while, (but) I like what I see.

Hopefully, they put the right people around those guys. I know the presidentGM they know what theyre doing. They got credentials. They did it in the past and a lot of people in Chicago are expecting theyre going to do the same thing they did in Boston.

At the age of 35, and in the final year of his contract, Dempster doesnt seem to fit into those rebuilding plans, even though he might be the most-respected player in the clubhouse. If this has been a distraction at all, its hard to notice.

Im just anxious to pitch tomorrow, Dempster said. Thats all Im worried about.

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

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USA TODAY

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — The Bears desperately need more from Jordan Howard, which may sound greedy given that he has been one of the only offensive sparks of the last two seasons. And they may be getting it.

Through the early practices in Bears Camp ’18, the nascent offense of coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich has been ... interesting. The intensity and conditions can be posited as factors, but the fact remains that the defense has intercepted a half-dozen passes and the pass rush has had Mitch Trubisky and the other quarterbacks frequently scrambling after coverage locked down their intended receivers.

Amid all that, something decidedly positive and mildly surprising was unfolding.

Rush-and-cover combos force check-downs to shorter routes, in particular running backs. If this were the Kansas City Chiefs offense under Nagy last year, that would have been Kareem Hunt, who caught 84 percent of the 63 passes on which he was targeted. If this were the Bears from 2008 through 2015, that would have been Matt Forte, who never caught fewer than 44 passes in any of his eight Chicago seasons.

But those were thens, this is now, and the featured back in the Chicago offense is Howard. That qualifies as a question for the developing Bears offense, an iteration of the West Coast system that is predicated on positive plays and ball control using the pass.

The reason is that Howard has developed two competing personas through his first two NFL seasons. One was that of a workhorse running back, the first in Bears franchise history to top 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. A model of consistency at 4.6 yards per carry.

The “other” Jordan Howard was the model of inconsistency — a running back among the worst pass-catchers at his position, low-lighted by the drop of a potential game-winning touchdown pass against the Atlanta Falcons last opening day. Howard dropped six of his 29 targets last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The year before he was determined to have dropped seven of his 50 targets.

An emerging 'new' Howard

But maybe that latter was then and this training camp is now.

The defensive pressure has, by chance or by choice, sent Trubisky passes toward Howard. The third-year tailback has responded with both efficient pass-catching and occasionally light acrobatic work, turning off-target throws into positive plays.

The results qualify as a significant positive from early camp. Howard is getting a clean-slate start from Nagy and running backs coach Charles London, and the hope is for a three-down back in the Hunt/Forte mold, which Howard can only be if he is an effective third-down option. His head coach thinks he is.

“Obviously, there’s this façade out there, there’s this notion that (Howard) is just a first- and second-down back, and I don’t believe that,” Nagy said. “Jordan can play all three downs. We’re going to do that. We’re going to use him. And we’re going to use other guys on first and second down when we need to.

“For us, it’s important for Jordan to know and for everybody on our offense to know that he’s a big part of this. This kid’s had a very successful career so far. We’re crazy as coaches and as offensive coaches if we don’t understand it and if we don’t use that to our advantage.”

Wanting Howard to be a three-down force and achieving that are two different things. For his part, Howard has worked to effect what can become a tidal shift for the offense.

“Definitely it’s important to me, just building my confidence more and more with catching the ball and working my body,” Howard said. “It’s definitely important to me. ... I definitely have improved my hand placement. I used to have my hands all over the place, but now coach London is working with me on my hand placement and looking the ball in.”

Possible impact on Howard

The impact of a multi-dimensional Howard cannot be overstated, and it could be overlooked in the buzz of all the other “weapons” the Bears brought in this offseason. It shouldn’t be.

Neither should the effect his enhanced skillset can have for Howard himself.

When the Bears’ offense broke out under Marc Trestman in 2013, finishing second in scoring, Forte caught 74 passes while posting his career-high 1,335 rushing yards on an average of 4.6 yards per carry.

Hunt as a rookie last season led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry while being the Chiefs’ third-leading receiver in both catches and targets. Howard was the only of the top eight leading rushers in 2017 with fewer than Leonard Fournette’s 36.

Tarik Cohen delivered 53 receptions. But Cohen is not a three-down back with the capability of the 200-plus carries that 17 of the top 19 running backs logged last year.

A critical element projects to be Howard’s conditioning and ability to take on a larger and more diverse workload. That limited him in his rookie season, when his usage in fourth quarters dropped at times because he simply wasn’t in requisite shape. The Bears hope that issue and the drops are behind Howard.

“He’s a patient running back,” Nagy said. “I think he as good vision so he’s patient, has good vision, and when you combine that with the power that he has, he finds ways to get yards. The nice thing for us is that we can move him around and do different things.”

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here: