Cubs

Cubs maintain strong work ethic despite poor record

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Cubs maintain strong work ethic despite poor record

Let's face it, laying a foundation is no fun. It's painful at times. It makes you start to wonder if you'll ever reach your ultimate goal or fret about just how long it's going to take to get there. But, it's necessary. Nobody wants a house built of cards. Perhaps it's why Cubs manager Dale Sveum seems so even-keeled about his team's failings this year. There's frustration, yes, but there's no ranting and raving, no tirades to speak of.

"It's not easy to lose ballgames on a consistent basis and still keep an attitude of work ethic and preparation," lamented Sveum before the Cubs-Tigers series finale on Thursday. "That's all you can ask for."

And so Sveum methodically goes about building a winning culture based on teaching players how to play the game the right way, how to prepare for success so when it comes, it will be automatic. But the biggest factor in that cultural equation is accountability. It's something the Cubs insist on and it's something Sveum is mandating without exception.

"You're building something to where it's (mistakes) not acceptable," said Sveum emphatically. "You're accountable for everything you do, even talking to the media after making a blunder. That's part of your job, to be accountable after a game when things don't go well. That's what you try to produce. That's the way we do things here and if you don't want to do them that way, we'll get somebody else."

As a working member of the media, that's music to my ears. Getting a player to talk after a poor performance in any sport can be difficult. Even the Miami Heat don't require Lebron James and Dwayne Wade to face the music after a loss. The two are notorious for blowing off the post-game press conference. But there was Joe Mather after Wednesday night's loss, standing at his locker fielding questions about the error he made in the 6th inning that could have been the difference in helping Matt Garza to his first win since April 29th.

Refreshing.

In fact, this whole Cubs way is kind of refreshing. Veteran players taking early infield practice at 3 o'clock, a good hour or so before batting practice. Extra long practice on Thursday, a day game after a night game when most teams opt out due to the short turnaround.

"I just believe those are certain things that need to be done on a constant basis," replied Sveum when asked about it. "The bottom-line is trying to get better in every situation."

It won't translate into any measurable results just yet, but even a small semblance of progress is encouraging and that's what's keeping Sveum from losing his cool when the going gets tough.

"It's a reality that we're building, setting a tone and building an organization," said Sveum matter-of-factly. "You're setting a precedent that we've got to build an organization to where that's going to happen every year, that we're going to win 90-plus games and have a chance of being in the postseason. Then your chances of winning a World Series go up and that's the ultimate goal."

In the meantime, the Cubs sit 20-games below .500. President Theo Epstein is backing up the truck as trade talks heat up. New hitting coach James Rowson is charged with conveying the 'selectively aggressive' approach to his struggling hitters and Sveum continues to lay one brick at a time, a tedious process that will ultimately pay off.

Laying the foundation isn't fun, but from the looks of the sellout crowd at Wrigley for the Tigers series, fans are willing to watch the Cubs build from the ground up with the promise of grand ambitions filling the air.

"That day is going to come," promises Sveum. "Where winning every game is life or death to get to the postseason. We're going to win 90-plus games every season and not have to rebuild again."

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. might be in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old outfielder continues to show his impressive range in center field and is having his best year at the plate.

In Sunday's 8-3 win against the Giants, Almora had three hits and showed off his wheels in center to rob Evan Longoria of extra bases. The catch is visible in the video above.

"Defensively, right now he's playing as well as he possibly can," Maddon said.

On top of the defense he has become known for, he is hitting .326. That's good for fifth in the National League in batting.

"He's playing absolutely great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's working good at-bats. His at-bats have gotten better vs. righties.

"The thing about it, is there's power there. The home runs are gonna start showing up, too."

There's also this stat, which implies Almora is having a growing significance on the Cubs as a whole:

There may be some correlation, but not causality in that. However, with Almora's center field play and growing accolades at the plate, the argument is becoming easier and easier that he is one of the most important players on the Cubs. That also goes for Almora's regular spot in the lineup, which has been up in the air with Maddon continuing to juggle the lineup.

Bears still see Dion Sims as a valuable piece to their offensive puzzle

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USA Today Sports Images

Bears still see Dion Sims as a valuable piece to their offensive puzzle

Dion Sims is still here, which is the outcome he expected but perhaps wasn’t a slam dunk — at least to those outside the walls at Halas Hall. 

The Bears could’ve cut ties with Sims prior to March 16 and saved $5.666 million against the cap, quite a figure for a guy coming off a disappointing 2017 season (15 catches, 180 yards, one touchdown). But the Bears are sticking with Sims, even after splashing eight figures to land Trey Burton in free agency earlier this year. 

“In my mind, I thought I was coming back,” Sims said. “I signed to be here three years and that’s what I expect. But I understand how things go and my job is come out here and work hard every day and play with a chip on my shoulder to prove myself and just be a team guy.”

The Bears signed Sims to that three-year, $18 million contract 14 months ago viewing him as a rock-solid blocking tight end with some receiving upside. The receiving upside never materialized, and his blocking was uneven at times as the Bears’ offense slogged through a bleak 11-loss season. 

“The situation we were in, we weren’t — we could’ve done a better job of being successful,” Sims said. “Things didn’t go how we thought it would. We just had to pretty much try to figure out how to come together and build momentum into coming into this year. I just think there were a lot of things we could have done, but because of the circumstances we were limited a little bit. 

“… It was a lot of things going on. Guys hurt, situations — it was tough for us. We couldn’t figure it out, along with losing, that was a big part of it too.”

Sims will be given a fresh start in 2018, even as Adam Shaheen will be expected to compete to cut into Sims’ playing time at the “Y” tight end position this year. The other side of that thought: Shaheen won’t necessarily slide into being the Bears’ primary in-line tight end this year. 

Sims averaged 23 receptions, 222 yards and two touchdowns from 2014-2016; that might be a good starting point for his 2018 numbers, even if it would represent an improvement from 2017. More important, perhaps, is what Sims does as a run blocker — and that was the first thing Nagy mentioned when talking about how Sims fits into his offense. 

“The nice thing with Dion is that he’s a guy that’s proven to be a solid blocker,” Nagy said. “He can be in there and be your Y-tight end, but yet he still has really good hands. He can make plays on intermediate routes. He’s not going to be anybody that’s a downfield threat — I think he knows that, we all know that — but he’s a valuable piece of this puzzle.”