Bulls

Cubs: What to watch for in the second half

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Cubs: What to watch for in the second half

If you have enough imagination, you can envision Albert Almora and Jorge Soler playing together for a long time, turning Wrigley Field into a destination for October baseball, not just concerts, international soccer friendlies and afternoons in the sun.

On Wednesday, the Cubs officially announced the signing of Almora, the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein administration. The team said the 18-year-old outfielder would be reporting to the teams complex in Mesa, Ariz.

A few hours later, Almora posted a message on his Twitter account hyping the 30 million Cuban defector: Please follow my new roommate @jorgesoler24 let's get him to 1000 followers!!!! beast.

If only Ron Santo and Billy Williams were on Twitter back in San Antonio in 1959.

The big narrative is that prospects like Almora and Soler are supposed to be part of the homegrown core, starring alongside Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. But that best-case scenario is years away, and right now the Cubs are 33-52 and flirting with the worst record in baseball and franchise history.

Day-to-day, youll hear things like this: Someone in the pressbox wondering if the proper AP style for crapshow is one word or two. Thats how eternal trade candidate Matt Garza described his first half.

So once the All-Star break ends, whats left to watch between here and Oct. 3? A viewers guide for the next 77 games:

Worst. Team. Ever?

The Cubs have to go 27-50 the rest of the way to avoid matching the franchise record for losses (103), which was put up by teams in 1962 and 1966 featuring Santo and Williams. But that label doesnt reflect the very low expectations heading into this season, the high-character guys in the clubhouse and the professional environment created by first-year manager Dale Sveum and his coaching staff.

Everybody is onboard with the manager, All-Star Bryan LaHair said. Hes running the ship and I think everybodys accepting the decisions he makes. Ive played on a lot of teams where not everybodys onboard (and) sometimes thats the most important thing. But theres definitely a good chemistry in the clubhouse.

We ran out every single ball this year 100 percent and thats tough to do. But were doing it, and I think were heading in the right direction.

Rizzo Watch

Teammates have enjoyed making fun of Rizzo and the media stakeouts by his locker, but in his own way, hes still managed to blend in and earn their respect. The 22-year-old first baseman has gone 17-for-48 (.354) with four homers and nine RBI in 12 games since his promotion from Triple-A Iowa. The Cubs believe hes here to stay.

The thing that stands out to me the most is just how calm he is, veteran outfielder Reed Johnson said. Hes not going to get too up and too down, and thats really what you need in this game because theres so much failure.

Hes going to go through a stretch where things arent going his way. Having that attitude where its just even keel whether hes going good or going bad is exactly what you need to stick around for a long time.

Trade bait

As well as the Cubs played heading into the All-Star break, winning nine of their last 13 games, there was also the sense that this team could look completely different after the July 31 deadline. Moving Ryan Dempster who could make one or two more starts to prove hes healthy before heading to a contender figures to be the first priority.

But Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will listen to just about any idea, and almost no one is untouchable outside of Rizzo and Castro and probably Jeff Samardzija. Teams needing help behind the plate (Geovany Soto), in the bullpen (Carlos Marmol) or off the bench (Johnson and Jeff Baker) may be calling. The Cubs dont have to trade Garza, who remains under club control through 2013.

Ian Stewarts season is probably over, but the third baseman summed it up when a fan asked about the general feeling for the second half during one of his rapid-fire sessions on Twitter (the definitive source for updates on his wrist surgery): Well, if we don't trade all our pitching away, the feeling might be ok.

Ozzie and Big Z

The Cubs kicked in more than 15 million last winter so the Miami Marlins would take on Carlos Zambrano, who wanted to play for Ozzie Guillen, his old friend from Venezuela. Both franchises were undergoing makeovers, and the Marlins are now 41-44 and stuck in fourth place in the National League East. They return to Wrigley Field for a three-game series next week that might as well be the Super Bowl for the Chicago media.

Then again, everyone expected it to be a circus when the Cubs went to Marlins Park in April for Guillens first game back after his suspension for making those Fidel Castro comments. That storm passed very quickly, but you never know with Ozzie and Big Z. Their reality show The Franchise hit Showtime on Wednesday night.

Ricketts vs. City Hall

Perhaps Guillen who always has something to (bleeping) say about Wrigley Field can jump back into politics and broker a deal between chairman Tom Ricketts and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The Super PAC stories about owner Joe Ricketts, the attack ads against Barack Obama and what it all means for the presidential campaign came at the worst possible time for the Cubs, who have been trying to lobby for help renovating their ancient stadium.

Walking around Kauffman Stadium this week, you were reminded that theres almost no chance Wrigley Field could host an All-Star Game without serious upgrades to handle the crush of international media, and the demands for amenities from the 1-percent types. That doesnt mean taxpayers should get the bill for a three-day party, but the renovation would be a game-changer.

Cooperstown

Santos Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be July 22. Cubs officials, WGN representatives and generations of fans will be traveling to upstate New York for the weekend. People around the Cubs dont need an excuse to start telling Santo stories, and they still crack up at the memories.

Santo was a tough-as-nails ballplayer, a one-of-kind voice on the radio and a tireless rainmaker for juvenile diabetes research. The only disappointment is that he wont be up there on stage next to Barry Larkin and all the other Hall of Famers.
The future

The Cubs system is thin in pitching, and most of the intriguing prospects are at the lower levels. Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters are the two September call-ups that could move the needle. The two former first-round picks still have things to prove at Iowa.

Jackson has an .833 OPS and can run and play the outfield, but hes struck out 122 times in 318 at-bats. Vitters, a Pacific Coast League All-Star, has to answer questions about his defense at third base.

Its not necessarily difficult to keep the future in mind, Epstein said. We dont have much of a choice. We have a plan for the long haul that were obviously building for I dont necessarily see that theres any (other) option. We got to scratch and claw and fight to be as competitive as we can right now, and then build toward improving.

Jabari Parker unafraid of history, expectations that come with Chicago's homegrown stars: "There's no fear"

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USA TODAY

Jabari Parker unafraid of history, expectations that come with Chicago's homegrown stars: "There's no fear"

The Chicago sunlight followed Jabari Parker as he walked through the East Atrium doors of the United Center, facing Michael Jordan’s statue before meeting with the media, introduced as a Chicago Bull for the first time.


For his sake, the brighter days are ahead instead of to his back as he’ll challenge the perception of being the hometown kid who can’t outrun his own shadow.


Parker re-enters Chicago as the No. 2 pick in the draft that the Milwaukee Bucks allowed to walk without compensation despite holding the cards through restricted free agency, damaged goods on the floor but not giving the Bulls a discount to don that white, red and black jersey he’s always dreamed of wearing.


“There were other teams but as soon as I heard Chicago, I just jumped on it,” Parker said.


It took a two-year, $40 million deal (2019-20 team option) to get Parker home, along with the selling point that he’ll start at small forward—a position that’s tough to envision him playing with on the defensive end considering three of the game’s top six scorers occupy that space.
It was a dream come true for his father, Sonny Parker, and high school coach, Simeon Academy’s Robert Smith, who both couldn’t hide their joy following the first question-and-answer session with the media.


“This is where he wanted to be,” Sonny Parker said. “His family’s happy, the support is there. All I know is the United Center will sell out every game. He can’t wait.”


“Normally guys get drafted here. He signed to come here. He had a couple offers from other teams but he wanted to come here.”


The biggest examples of Chicagoans who arrived with outsized expectations for this franchise had varying results, but Derrick Rose and Eddy Curry both came away with scars of sorts that had many wondering why any hometown product would willingly choose to play for the Bulls.


The risk seems to far outweigh the reward; the emotional toll doesn’t seem worth the fare. And with the roster makeup not being ideal for Parker, no one could blame him for going to a better situation—or at least one more tailored to his skills rather than his heart.
“I think every situation is different. Derrick was excelling,” Bulls executive vice-president John Paxson said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “MVP of the league in his hometown before the injury. Eddy was just a young kid who didn’t have the savvy Derrick had. I think every situation is different. Jabari is such a grounded, solid person that he’s gonna be just fine.”


“You don’t have to spend a whole lot of time with him to figure out he’s got it together. He knows who he is. Comfortable in his own skin. A quiet guy. Hopefully he’ll thrive here. The goal is it works great for him and works great for us.”


It seemed like he was bred to be a pro—and not just any pro, but the type Chicago demands of its own when a covenant to play 82 nights a year has been reached. If the constant prodding from his father didn’t break his façade, or older brother Darryl doing everything he could to coax emotion from the most gifted of the Parker clan couldn’t do it, two ACL surgeries on his left knee may pale in comparison.


The numbers from Parker’s recent stint with the Bucks don’t bear it out, but Smith sees a player who’s back on track to being what his talent has always dictated he should become.


“Even watching him work out lately, it’s like whoa,” Smith said. “But of course, everything with Chicago period you have to be cautious. With his family and the support system he has, this thing is about winning basketball games and giving back to the community.”


“He’s had that (target) on his back since he stepped on the court at Simeon, coming behind Derrick and being one of the top five players as a freshman and No. 1 player as a junior. I don’t think it’s a huge problem, it can help him a little bit. If he has those moments if something doesn’t go right, he has someone to help him.”


Parker is more known for his restarts than his unique skill set in his young career, but even at 23 years old speaks with a sage of someone 20 years his senior, unwilling to tab this portion of his journey as a fresh start.


After all, it would be easy to envision his career beginning from the moment he left Simeon as a phenom followed by his one season at Duke—having two games where he totaled just 24 minutes with just two points to start the Bucks’ first-round series against the Boston Celtics isn’t typical of a star’s story if he sees himself that way.


“I don’t. I don’t want to forget all the hard work I had,” Parker said. “To forget I hurt myself and came back is to discredit my success. That in of itself is something outside the norm. I want to always remember the setbacks and failures I’ve had in my career so far. I want to use that as a sense of motivation.”


Bringing up his awkward pro beginnings in Milwaukee, where Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ascension to an unexpected strata mirrored thoughts he might’ve had of himself before his injuries, didn’t cause him to growl.


“I’ve never got jealous a day in my life. That’s why it wasn’t hard because I wasn’t jealous,” Parker said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “My journey is my journey. I gotta be proud of that and be patient. I took that and I move forward.”


The mention of his defense didn’t make him defensive, either, as he definitively pointed out the truth as he saw it, that today’s game is far more offensive-minded than the bruise-fests of the previous decades. Telling by his words in subsequent interviews, the best defense is a great offense and when he’s right, there aren’t many who can get a bucket as easily and with as much diversity as himself.


The only time Parker broke serve was at the notion he’d be following in the footsteps of Rose’s perceived failures, the setbacks Rose suffered when his knees began to fail after reaching inspiring heights players like Parker wanted to emulate.


At the podium for all to see, he corrected a question formed around Rose’s “rise and fall”, a sound byte copied and pasted by a couple Chicago-bred NBA players on social media in support of Parker’s words and feelings.


“Derrick had no lows. He didn’t. He still maintained. Derrick’s a legend, no matter what…no rise and falls. Injuries are part of life. Derrick is one of the best icons in Chicago. He accomplished his duty already.”


And later, he wanted to set the record straight again, drawing a line from how the media has presented Rose compared to how the people of Chicago see him, and vice-versa.


“We didn’t turn on Derrick, the media (did),” Parker told NBCSportsChicago.com. “We’re hometown. I speak for everybody, we love our hometown.”


The love of Chicago meant more than the prospect of not being able to live up to a glorious prep past, even though he should be well aware wanderlust can turn to villainy in a heartbeat—or the wrong step.


“There’s no pressure for me,” Parker said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “I’m just happy I get to play with some young guys, and I don’t harp on the negative. Anybody and everybody is gonna have an opinion. I value more my dreams than their opinions.”


And the dreamer steps forward, with a confident gait, eyes wide open and a city hoping it doesn’t repeat the same mistakes of its past.


“There’s no fear,” Parker said. “I haven’t faced any other pressure than bouncing back. I’m back on my feet and moving on.”


“When you struggle more, you succeed more.”

Sports Talk Live Podcast: With Jabari Parker in the mix, are the Bulls playoff contenders?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: With Jabari Parker in the mix, are the Bulls playoff contenders?

David Haugh, Patrick Finley and KC Johnson join Kap on the panel. Jabari Parker is officially a Chicago Bull. So does that make the Bulls a playoff team? And who will play defense for Fred Hoiberg’s young team? Vincent Goodwill and Mark Schanowski drop by to discuss.

Plus with Manny Machado now a Dodger, are the Cubs no longer the best team in the NL?

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: