Cubs looking for new leaders to step forward


Cubs looking for new leaders to step forward

Theo Epstein promised that the buzz surrounding his hire would fade.

An executive cant be the face of the franchise for long. The attention would have to swing back toward the players. No one buys tickets to watch the president of baseball operations watch the game from a luxury suite.

There have been plenty of sea-change moments around the Cubs the past nine months. Aramis Ramirez, their best third baseman since Ron Santo, walked as a free agent. Carlos Zambrano made his pitch to Epstein at Goose Island Wrigleyville and was shipped to the Miami Marlins. Kerry Wood hugged his son by the dugout and retired in a perfect made-for-TV moment.

But it sharply came into focus this week during the final 18 hours or so before the trade deadline. Ryan Dempster will now be throwing to Geovany Soto with the Texas Rangers. Reed Johnson and Paul Maholm, two low-key professionals, will blend into the Atlanta Braves clubhouse.

Alfonso Soriano is now the only player left from the 2007 Opening Day roster, which was managed by Lou Piniella and put together during the wild win one for the Tribune spending spree.

Soriano, Carlos Marmol and Jeff Samardzija are the only remaining players from the 2008 team that won 97 games. On Friday night, the Cubs return to Dodger Stadium, where that year they were swept out of the playoffs, beginning a downward spiral.

Its weird, said Darwin Barney, the 26-year-old second baseman. Someone was saying, Man, youre a salty veteran now on this team. I look around and its pretty crazy what direction were going in. I think a lot of us are excited about it. But at the same time, were sad that big pieces had to go.

We know that we played ourselves into this position. Were still at that stage where we got to get better. We got to get better top to bottom.

That wont happen simply through corporate efficiency and turning short-term assets into long-term assets.

Dempster, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have all done their media blitzes, reconstructing their versions of the Braves deal and the Dodgers negotiations.

By the end, it was hard to tell who was the hammer and who was the nail. This was millionaire vs. millionaire and neither one probably got what he really wanted deep down.

This isnt about winning the hearts and minds of Cubs fans. Its simply to point out that WAR and VORP and the advanced stats dont tell the entire story, and remind you how difficult this chemistry experiment will be in the years to come.

Earlier this summer, Randy Wells sat in the dugout at U.S. Cellular Field and reflected on the many ups and downs and how much Dempster meant to his career.

If you dont have the confidence or the swagger or the belief that you can go out there and get it done, then thats the hardest thing to find, Wells said. You cant find that in a weight room or a video room. You got to find that yourself. Thats something Ryan brings to the table, because hes been doing it for a long time. If theres anybody that can get people through that, its a guy like him.

This describes Ryan to a T: He is not going to quit until he thinks that he has outworked everybody else. I remember a speech he gave to the minor-league guys one time (several years ago). He said: You might be better than me. You might have a better arm. But youre not going to outwork me.

Dempster can be single-minded and insanely competitive. The screaming during those dugout tantrums at PNC Park was probably nothing compared to what happened behind closed doors.

Those personality traits pushed a pitching staff, and almost certainly colored how he viewed his no-trade rights, the front office and the Dodgers.

Johnson had the ideal temperament for playing off the bench and in this market and became one of the most popular and respected players in the clubhouse.

Johnson could do a great Piniella impression. He dressed up as Hoyer in a wig, blue polo shirt and khaki pants while Jeff Baker went as Epstein for the teams recent Superheroes trip from St. Louis to Pittsburgh.

Soto never lived up to the potential everyone saw during that Rookie of the Year campaign in 2008, but he was a bilingual bridge in the clubhouse and for the pitching staff. Remember The Zambrano Whisperer?

Someone is going to have to fill the leadership vacuum as manager Dale Sveum tries to hold it all together during the final two months of the season.

Cubs executives have said how rookie first baseman Anthony Rizzo is mature beyond his years. Starlin Castro knows the shortstop is supposed to be the field general.

Barney brings intangibles after winning two College World Series titles at Oregon State University. Soriano is a leader in his own way, just because he is always so upbeat: Yeah, babe!

(Steve) Clevenger and (Welington) Castillo have to step up in the catchers role, Sveum said, because theyre a big part of our future and theyre gonna be here for awhile. Rizzo already has those qualities in him, but you dont put those things on anybody.

Samardzija (is) the type of guy that can take Dempsters role and run with that. But you dont just designate somebody. Thats not the way that works. Its usually a little bit of time and (being comfortable) in the big leagues.

It would be wrong to say that Epstein ignores the human element and views the game one-dimensionally. Especially when you hear about how much research goes into a players makeup before the draft, or how Boston Red Sox prospects like Rizzo were taken care of when they went through health scares.

As Baker said, they wouldnt have dressed up as Epstein and Hoyer if they didnt like the guys. But theres no denying that there are now huge holes on the roster and in the clubhouse.

Demp is gone, along with Big Z and Kid K, and the makeover is nowhere near complete. A new identity is going to emerge.

No one in baseball is going to feel sorry for us, Baker said. I still believe in the guys in the room. Its an opportunity for some guys to prove themselves, show they can play, show they can be part of the plans here going forward.

Four takeaways: Blackhawks suffer first regulation loss, but Corey Crawford looks sharp in season debut


Four takeaways: Blackhawks suffer first regulation loss, but Corey Crawford looks sharp in season debut

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes at the United Center on Thursday:

1. Return of the Crow

The Blackhawks got their man back between the pipes after a 10-month layoff due to a concussion. And he looked like same old "Crow."

Crawford stopped 27 of 30 shots for a save percentage of .900. He faced 12 shots and eight scoring chances in the first period, but nothing too out of the ordinary. The biggest save he made was on a Michael Grabner breakaway in the third period, bailing out a turnover in the neutral zone.

"I think I felt better in the second and third," Crawford said. "But they really didn’t get that many opportunities early. It was nice. I think they flipped one in for the first one, so that was kind of good just to get in it and feel one early. We were close in that one all game and we created a lot. I thought [Antti] Raanta played really well.

"It was a tough, tough break at the end. Still felt I should have stopped that one. We were right there, we were creating a lot and gotta try to come up with that one. Just gotta forget about it and worry about the next game."

2. Alex DeBrincat, Jonathan Toews extend point streaks

The hot start continues for the Blackhawks' two leading scorers, both of whom assisted on Erik Gustafsson's goal in the second period to stretch their point streaks to six games. DeBrincat and Toews each have 10 points this season.

3. Overtime streak ends

The Blackhawks made history by forcing five straight overtime games to start the season, something no team has ever done in the four major sports (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB). But they didn't have the comeback magic in them this time.

Entering Thursday, the Blackhawks were 1-0-1 when trailing after two periods. They were 5-28-2 last season for a win percentage of .143.

4. Familiar faces, new places

Five former Blackhawks took the ice for the Coyotes: Vinnie Hinostroza, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jordan Oesterle, Richard Panik and Antti Raanta.

It was Hjalmarsson's first trip back to Chicago since being traded in the 2017 offseason. He received a nice video tribute during the second TV timeout of the first period, which made him very emotional.

"I almost got emotional too seeing his reaction," Toews said. "He's one of those guys you'll never forget what he meant to this locker room. He was a quiet guy in the room but we all know how he played and put everyone else before himself. Pretty cool reaction from the fans too. I think we were all sad to see him leave this locker room, he did a lot of special things and was a massive part of our championship wins. Happy for him to get that reception. It's well-deserved and obviously we miss having him around."

As far as the game, Hjalmarsson logged a team-high 22:18 of ice time and blocked three shots. Oesterle registered a secondary assist on Arizona's first goal, which was its first 5-on-5 of the season.

Hinostroza, who was also part of the Marian Hossa trade over the summer, scored twice in his return to his hometown, beating Crawford with a wrist shot to make it 2-1 in the second period and an empty-netter in the third; his second goal turned out to be the game winner, the fourth of his career and first as a member of the Coyotes.

Panik recorded four shot attempts (three on goal). And Raanta improved to 16-0-3 in his career at the United Center, a remarkable record for any goaltender in any situation.

Could Ryan Arcidiacono be in line for more minutes?


Could Ryan Arcidiacono be in line for more minutes?

The Bulls backup point guard situation will be in dire straits all season, with no established veteran behind Kris Dunn. And although the front office has seemingly committed to Cameron Payne as the backup PG (for at least this season), Ryan Arcidiacono showed enough in the season opener to justify giving him meaningful plying time in the rotation. 

Here are the stat lines of Arcidiacono and Cameron Payne from the season opener in Philadelphia:

Arcidiacono: 8 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 2-for-3 from the 3-point line

Payne:           0 points, 5 assists, 1 rebound, 0-for-1 from the 3-point line

With so many capable ball handlers and score-first players on the Bulls, point and assist totals aren’t as important as the rebounds and 3-point attempts. To provide the necessary space needed for driving lanes, there has to be openings in the defense caused by defenders sticking close to player they believe are a threat to shoot.

And that is where the problem lies with Payne.

Ryan Arcidiacono—while by no means a dominant scorer—showed a willingness to attack off of the pick-and-roll, even showing off an impressive ball-fake:

Payne, despite coming into the league with the reputation of a scorer, has yet to be aggressive enough to make teams think twice about giving him wide-open on the perimeter. And he is not one to attack the basket with purpose, averaging less than half a free throw per game for his career. Payne's general lack of aggressiveness when on the floor is often times made worse by his occasional poor post entry passes that seem predetermined:

Even if the above play was designed to get the ball to LaVine in the mid-post, Payne chooses a terrible time to make the pass. When he starts the motion to give the ball to LaVine, Ben Simmons is positioned in front of LaVine to force a tougher pass, as rookie Landry Shamet gambles over the backside to get the steal.

Had Payne chose to swing the ball around the perimeter, or give it to Bobby Ports and then get it back, he could have created an opening for the LaVine pass.

Obviously, the Bulls 19-point loss can’t be blamed on solely on Payne, the terrible defense was a group effort, as was the sometimes questionable shot selection. But with the defense already appearing to be perhaps one of the league's worst units, Fred Hoiberg would be wise to put Arcidiacono in more.

Hoiberg is in a crucial year where he needs to show that he can be the head coach of this team when they finally become competitive.

And for Hoiberg to show that type of growth as a coach, he needs to set the tone that minutes are earned not given, something he has already started with his moving of Jabari Parker to the bench. Payne only received 22 minutes, compared to 28 minutes for Arcidiacono, and it is tough to see that changing if things continue on like they did on Thursday night.