Preps Talk

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.

2018 IHSA Football Playoff Pairings

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

2018 IHSA Football Playoff Pairings

The 2018 IHSA Football Playoff pairings have been unveiled as teams from all over the state begin their postseason journey. 

Be sure to check our Twitter, @NBCSPreps, or the IHSA's Twitter, @IHSAState, for the latest IHSA Football updates. 

CLASS 1A

CLASS 1A EXPERT ANALYSIS

1. Princeville (9-0) vs. 16. Polo (5-4)
8. Annawan-Wethersfield Coop (6-3) vs. 9. Aurora Christian (6-3)
4. Lena-Winslow (8-1) vs. 13. Lewistown (5-4)
5. Orr (8-1) vs. 12. LeRoy (5-4)
2. Ottawa Marquette (9-0) vs. 15. Orangeville (5-4)
7. Stockton (7-2) vs. 10. Dakota (6-3)
3. Milledgeville (9-0) vs. 14. Fulton (5-4)
6. Forreston (7-2) vs. 11. Hiawatha (6-3)
1. Argenta-Oreana (9-0) vs. 16. Cerro Gordo-Bement Coop (5-4)
8. Fisher (7-2) vs. 9. Cumberland (7-2)
4. Red Hill (8-1) vs. 13. Central A&M (6-3)
5. Madison (8-1) vs. 12. Edwards County (6-3)
2. Camp Pt. Central (8-1) vs. 15. Greenfield-NW Coop (6-3)
7. Sesser-Valier Coop (7-2) vs. 10. Carrollton (6-3)
3. Triopia Coop (8-1) vs. 14. Georgetown-RF (6-3)
6. Arcola (7-2) vs. 11. Salt Fork (6-3)

CLASS 2A

CLASS 2A EXPERT ANALYSIS

1. Gibson City-MS (9-0) vs. 16. Watseka (5-4)
8. Hope Academy (7-2) vs. 9. Knoxville (6-3)
4. Illini West (9-0) vs. 13. Mercer County (5-4)
5. Newman C.C. (8-1) vs. 12. Rockford Christian (6-3)
2. Orion (9-0) vs. 15. Fieldcrest (5-4)
7. Clifton Central (7-2) vs. 10. Rockridge (6-3)
3. Eastland-Pearl City Coop (9-0) vs. 14. Harlan (5-4)
6. Collins Coop (8-1) vs. 11. Chicago Christian (6-3)
1. St. Teresa (9-0) vs. 16. Staunton (5-4)
8. Eldorado (7-2) vs. 9. Athens (7-2)
4. Pana (8-1) vs. 13. Oakwood (5-4)
5. Nashville (8-1) vs. 12. Tri-Valley (5-4)
2. Maroa-Forsyth (9-0) vs. 15. Routt Coop (5-4)
7. Warrensburg-Latham (7-2) vs. 10. Chester (6-3)
3. Tuscola (8-1) vs. 14. Villa Grove-Heritage Coop (5-4)
6. Bismarck-Henning (8-1) vs. 11. West Hancock Coop (6-3)

CLASS 3A

1. Byron (9-0) vs. 16. Rock Island Alleman (5-4)
8. Elmwood-Brimfield Coop (6-3) vs. 9. Princeton (6-3)
4. Lisle (8-1) vs. 13. Dwight Coop (6-3)
5. North Boone (7-2) vs. 12. Mid-County Coop (6-3)
2. Dunbar (8-1) vs. 15. Herscher (5-4)
7. Clark (6-3) vs. 10. Hall Twp. (6-3)
3. Eureka (8-1) vs. 14. UP/Englewood (5-4)
6. Monmouth-Rosevl. (7-2) vs. 11. Wilmington (6-3)
1. Monticello (9-0) vs. 16. St. Joseph-Ogden (5-4) 
8. Anna-Jonesboro (7-2) vs. 9. West Frankfort (7-2)
4. Farmington (9-0) vs. 13. Greenville (6-3)
5. Beardstown (8-1) vs. 12. Pleasant Plains (6-3)
2. Carlinville (9-0) vs. 15. East Alton-Wood River (6-3)
7. Vandalia (7-2) vs. 10. Paxton-Buckley-Loda (6-3)
3. Fairfield (9-0) vs. 14. Newton (6-3)
6. Williamsville (8-1) vs. 11. DuQuoin (6-3)

CLASS 4A

1. IC Catholic (9-0) vs. 16. Raby (5-4)
8. Dixon (6-3) vs. 9. Stillman Valley (6-3)
4. Urban Prep Bronzeville (8-1) vs. 13. St. Edward (5-4)
5. Marengo (7-2) vs. 12. Sullivan (6-3)
2. Coal City (8-1) vs. 15. Wheaton Academy (5-4)
7. Ag. Science (7-2) vs. 10. Johnsburg (6-3)
3. Richmond-Burton (8-1) vs. 14. Plano (5-4)
6. Genoa-Kingston (7-2) vs. 11. Clemente (6-3)
1. Taylorville (9-0) vs. 16. Illinois Valley Central (5-4)
8. Columbia (7-2) vs. 9. Freeburg (7-2)
4. Rochester (8-1) vs. 13. Breese Central (6-3)
5. Pontiac (8-1) vs. 12. Herrin (7-2)
2. Paris (9-0) vs. 15. Salem (6-3)
7. Breese Mater Dei (7-2) vs. 10. Effingham (7-2)
3. Bishop McNamara (8-1) vs. 14. Richland County (6-3)
6. Murphysboro Coop (7-2) vs. 11. Prairie Central (7-2)

 

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

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USA TODAY

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”