Bears

Cubs' top prospects: A first-half review

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Cubs' top prospects: A first-half review

Weve reached the half-way point of the season and it's clear that Chicago is home to two teams with different plans for the second half. The Sox look to make a run at the playoffs and beyond while the Cubs take the next steps in their rebuilding process. Now that the wheels are clearly turning on the Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer machine, lets take a look at whos hot and whos not from the first half of the season.

Iowa Cubs

The Good: This may come as a shock to, well no one, my top performer of the first half is without a doubt Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo came into the season as the number two ranked prospect in the Cubs system according to minorleagueball.com. But early on he catapulted himself head and shoulders above everyone else in the organization. He spent the majority of the first half in Iowa where he was nothing short of spectacular. Rizzo hit .342, launched 23 home runs and drove in 62 runs, all over the course of just 70 games. His towering home runs and infectious attitude caught everyones attention and it was only a matter of time until Rizzo got his shot at the friendly confines. As we all know, the young slugger has not disappointed during his short time in the big leagues, but most of all he has rejuvenated a fan base that had next to nothing to cheer for. Anthony Rizzo is giving Cubs fans a glimpse of the future that they so patiently await.

The Bad: Coming into the 2012 campaign, everyone could agree upon one thing: Brett Jackson was the number one prospect in the entire Cubs organization. This was quickly disproved, and as Rizzo vaulted himself to stardom, Jackson slid somewhere into the shadows and we are still waiting for him to show up. Statistically speaking, Jacksons numbers arent terrible but he is not where everyone expected him to be at the half way mark. He is swinging it at .261 with 12 homers and 37 RBIs. He has also shown exceptional speed swiping 20 bags. All of that is just fine, but neither his numbers nor his play scream call up. The second half of the season may be the most important of Jacksons career. With Rizzo gone, he is back to being the man under the microscope and he has quite a bit to prove. Jackson is in dire need of a few consistent weeks of production at the plate to get everyone back on his bandwagon in a Rizzo-type fashion.
The Watch List: Josh Vitters was ranked number 11 in the system by minorleagueball.com, but he has played well beyond the preseason projections. The Iowa third baseman opened some eyes in the first half with his .302 average and 48 RBIs. The 22-year-old was labeled a contact hitter, but has also seen an enormous spike in his power numbers this season (13 HR.509 SLG.866 OPS). Vitters efforts have not gone unnoticed as he has been selected to the Pacific Coast League All-Star game. At this point in his career, it is Vitters choice whether he wants to be a part of the long term future of the Cubs, and that is why I have him pinned as the Triple A player to watch.
Tennessee Smokies

The Good: Junior Lakes numbers wont take your breath away, but his first half performance should not only be evaluated on paper. If there is one word to describe Lakes 2012 efforts, it would be 'grind'. It hasn't come easy for the Smokies shortstop but he has willed his way to a .286 average. Most importantly, he is sporting a new plate approach that has cut down his strikeout rate while boosting his OBP. Scouts main criticism of the youngster was his free-swinging attitude and it appears as if that has been addressed and fixed. It is important for Lake to continue to work into favorable pitch counts. This will allow him to boost his average into the .300s and keep it there. Everything about Lake suggests he is about to have a break through, it is simply a matter of when.

The Bad: Trey McNutt hasn't been awful, but at the same time, hasn't produced the numbers a top-five prospect should. The right hander is 5-7 with a 4.46 ERA. What is most alarming about McNutt is his inability to work deep into games. He is averaging just less than four innings per start. That is just flat out not going to cut it. If McNutt has any big league aspirations as a starter, he needs to approach the second half with a different game plan, one that involves taking his starts well into the seventh and even eighth innings of games. If he fails to do so, he will have 'bullpen status' written all over him.
The Watch List: My Double A player to watch didnt even crack the Cubs preseason top 25, but Eric Jokisch strongly disagrees with those prognosticators. The southpaw has toed the rubber in both Daytona and Tennessee this season and has taken advantage of his opportunities. Since joining the Smokies, Jokisch is 4-1 with a 3.04 ERA. and is allowing a .198 batting average against. Much has been made of the acquisitions of Alberet Almora and Jorge Soler along with the call up of Anthony Rizzo, but the topic of future arms has gone untouched. Aside from late round draft picks, Jed and Theo have yet to address the need for pitching down the road, which is something they will likely do in the offseason and future drafts. Just make sure you dont remove Eric Jokischs name from the discussions just yet.
Daytona
The Good: Daytona right hander Matt Loosen has been lights out for his club this season. The unlikely prospect was drafted in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft, 700th overall. He currently boasts a 7-3 record and a stingy 2.84 ERA. Loosen has gone about his business quietly, but managed to strikeout nearly a batter per inning. If he continues at this pace, it is likely he will climb the ranks and get an opportunity at a higher level.
The Bad: Ronald Torreyes came into the season as a top 20 prospect in the Cubs organization. The first half has not been kind to Torreyes and the undersized second baseman has slipped from there due to his below-average production. Torreyes was part of the Sean Marshall trade to Cincinnati and was thought to be a solid pickup who hit for good average. The only problem is he isnt. Torreyes is hitting .236 at the half way point. He has nowhere to go but up from here but he has dug himself quite a hole to climb out of.

The Watch List: One Daytona player to watch during the second stanza of the 2012 season is Arismendy Alcantara. The Cubs shortstop has successfully hit the ball to all fields. Initially, Alcantara flew under the radar but his production has become hard to ignore. He is hitting .306 with seven round trippers, 51 RBIs, 46 runs scored and 25 stolen bases. Even more impressively, Alcantara is one of only three players in the Florida State League with 100 or more hits (100). I continue to ask myself if this kid has big league potential and he continues to deliver. The jury is still out but Alcantara is undoubtedly one to keep an eye on.

Peoria

When it comes to the Peoria Chiefs, Javier Baez has been the good, the bad and the one to watch. The Cubs 2011 first round selection is hitting .310 with six homers and 14 RBIs. He also touts an .887 OPS and 14 stolen bases in 15 attempts. My only concern is Baez's ability to deliver day in and day out. He is young, therefore errors of the metal and physical brand are both to be expected. Baez has been white hot at times and arctic cold at others. He has big play ability and I am convinced he will find his way to the north side sometime in the next few years. The physical tools are all there, with the only question being his makeup and approach. If he shows solid maturity, he could justify his high first round selection in the 2011 MLB First Year Player Draft.
Joe Musso contributed to this report.

Is Bears “D” in “football shape?” Lacking ability to finish? Fourth-quarter fades raise questions

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USA Today

Is Bears “D” in “football shape?” Lacking ability to finish? Fourth-quarter fades raise questions

During the critical fourth-quarter Oakland Raiders drive for a game-winning touchdown, one former Pro Bowl’er and NFL observer remarked to this writer that he was surprised to see a lot of hands on hips and mouth-breathing by members of the Bears defense – two common signs of being gassed.

Critiquing conditioning – or lack of – is problematic the way judging pain tolerance is. And if the Raiders score were an isolated incident, the question likely doesn’t come up.

But something is amiss. While the Bears defense remains among the NFL’s best, at least statistically, a shadow of concern is falling over the defense and its ability to close out games that it has within its reach.

The Bears held fourth-quarter leads over Denver and Oakland and allowed go-ahead touchdowns. They were rescued by Eddy Piñeiro’s 53-yard field goal in the final second. No such rescue in London.

Fully half of the eight touchdowns scored by Bears opponents in 2019 have come in fourth quarters. (The Bears themselves have not scored a single TD in any fourth quarter this season, but that’s a separate discussion.) By contrast, last season the defense did not allow a fourth-quarter touchdown in any of the final five regular-season games.

The temptation is to look only at the numbers, which are in fact positive. Even with the 24 points the Raiders scored against them in London, the Bears ranked second only to New England in scoring stinginess (13.8 ppg.) and fifth in yardage allowed (312 ypg.).

But the Bears have 17 sacks as a team; only three of those have come in fourth quarters.

Opposing quarterbacks have passed at an 81.3 rating in first halves; they are throwing at a 91.4 clip in second halves.

The defense has allowed 16 first downs in first quarters; 21 in seconds; 20 in thirds.

In 2019 fourth quarters, 34 first downs allowed.

Pulling the camera back for a wider view, extending back to include the disturbing 2018 playoff loss:

Vs. Philadelphia
Eagles drive 60 yards in 12 plays and nearly 4 minutes to score game-winning TD with :56 remaining. Cody Parkey’s double-doink overshadows fact that Bears defense forces Eagles into only two third downs and allows winning score on a fourth down.

Vs. Green Bay
With the Chicago offense sputtering all game and in need of a short field, Packers go on a 10-play, 73-yard drive that consumed 6:33 to set up a field goal to go up 10-3 deep in the fourth quarter.

At Denver
Inept Broncos offense scores 11 points in the fourth quarter to overcome a 13-3 Bears lead, driving 62 yards in 12 plays, converting two fourth downs and a two-point conversion. Denver’s second-half drives: 41 yards, 56 yards, 84 yards, 62 yards.

Vs. Washington
Bears build 28-0 lead before one of NFL’s worst offenses scores a pair of largely meaningless second-half TD’s.

Vs. Minnesota Vikings
Drive 92 yards in 13 plays for TD before Bears stiffen to stop two-point PAT and next Minnesota possession.

Vs. Oakland (London)
Raiders win game with 92-yard drive that includes fourth-down conversion on punt fake run despite Bears leaving No. 1 defensive unit in, anticipating fake.

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

The Bulls recorded their first win of the preseason with Sunday night’s 105-91 win over the Raptors. Here are three takeaways:

We got a peek at Jim Boylen's regular-season rotation

We had a clue that Boylen was going to go with Tomas Satoransky as his starter after he chose to sit him with the starters in the Bulls third preseason game against the Indiana Pacers, and tonight helped further confirm this idea. Boylen stated before the game that he would be starting to roll out his regular season rotations, and we saw "Sato" start next to the regular Bulls starting group of Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and the returning Wendell Carter Jr.

On top of seeing the starting group, we got to see Thaddeus Young in his probable role as the sixth man, coming in for Carter to provide the Bulls with more of a small look where Markkanen acts as the center.

Markkanen was particularly effective on the glass against the smaller Raptors frontline sans Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Lauri collected a double-double, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including 4 offensive rebounds. 

Giving an even greater effort on the glass will push Markkanen closer to All-Star status and it is not out of the question as we have seen him raise his rebounding average every season. Games like Sunday night's show that all of the muscle Markkanen added this offseason is going to pay dividends in the 2019-20 NBA regular season and beyond, which will allow the Bulls to play smaller more often to get dynamic scorers like Coby White on the floor.

White came in as a substitute for Porter, giving the Bulls another small-ball lineup in which LaVine acts as the small forward next to him and Satoransky.

Satoransky was great, finishing with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 21 minutes. Sato pushed the pace but also could sense the right time to pull the ball back out and run a play in the halfcourt.

In general, the Bulls trotted out more three-guard lineups in this game, and the size of big guards like Satoransky and Dunn help the Bulls blur the lines between wing and guard, mitigating some of the risks involved with not having a traditional wing on the floor.

On the flip side, the perimeter skills of a big man like Young allow the Bulls to play bigger lineups in which Young plays small forward next to two big men. In Sunday night's win over the Raptors, Young finished the game second on the Bulls in rebounds (7) and assists (3), while being in the right spot more times than not on D. 

With stretch-five Luke Kornet (2-7 from 3-point line vs Raptors), the gritty, playmaking Ryan Arcidiacono (3 assists, no turnovers), and rookie Daniel Gafford rounding out the rest of the new Bulls' Bench Mob", Boylen will have the ability to play many different ways, affording us a fair chance to see what Boylen is made of as an NBA head coach. He is already passing his first test of showing that he is open to change, with the Bulls shooting 49 3-pointers on Sunday night, keeping their promise of being more aggressive from deep.

The Zach LaVine All-Star push starts now 

Overall, Zach LaVine has not been shy about already being at an All-Star level of play, you just have to ask him.

LaVine came into Sunday night's game sixth in the league in preseason scoring, averaging 22.0 points per game through two contests, and he kept up that scoring onslaught in a big way. He finished the Bulls win over the Raptors with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in just 24 minutes of action. He finished the night with four turnovers as well, and while you would like to see the assist-to-turnover ratio improve, high turnover totals are just the name of the game for high-usage stars.

Besides, Boylen and co. likely would rather see LaVine collect some turnovers trying to make the extra pass—something the Bulls have committed to hard this preseason—rather than trying to iso and make a play for himself.

Notably, the LaVine-Markkanen pick-and-roll that figures to be a staple of the Bulls offense for a long time again made an appearance in this game, looking crisp at moments as defenses struggle with scrambling to Markkanen at the 3-point line or worrying more about LaVine's oftentimes dominant drives to the rim.

While it is encouraging to see LaVine score effortlessly, that is not a new development for Bulls fans. The true mark of improvement for LaVine will be his defense and playmaking, both of which looked good on Sunday night.

LaVine racked up two steals and showed an improved awareness and aggressiveness when prowling the passing lanes. What makes defense so huge for LaVine besides the fact that his effort-level sets the tone for the team is that he so often turns opponent turnovers into points in transition for Chicago.

The Bulls had 14 fastbreak points and 17 points off of turnovers in their win over the Raptors, with LaVine's efforts playing a large hand in the win. 

Coby White continues to score in bunches 

It has been stated many times how Coby White was more of a shooting guard in high school and only transitioned into being more a lead guard at North Carolina. And those natural scoring instincts have shown up time and time again in the NBA preseason, especially in transition. 

If you get White going towards the rim with a head of steam in transition, he will make it to the basket before the 24-second shot clock hits the 19-second mark, a remarkable display of his blazing speed.

Of course, everything is to be taken with a grain of salt in the NBA preseason, as we are often seeing White (and others) face off against a team's backups or even worse, players that won't even make an NBA roster. But what White has done well should play in the regular season too. He scored 18 points on 37.5% shooting from the field, including hitting 4 of his 12 attempts from 3-point range. White was 2-2 from the free throw line and finished with one assist and no turnovers. 

It looks like it will be a while before we see Coby White look like an NBA-level floor general but he is already playing like an uber-confident, spark plug shooting guard.

The Bulls can utilize White's scoring in the regular season knowing that even if his court vision isn't where they want it to be, his shoot-first mentality and propensity to keep the ball moving should result in lower turnover totals than your usual score-first point guard.