Cubs

With Jackson and Vitters, the vision for the future comes into focus

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With Jackson and Vitters, the vision for the future comes into focus

LOS ANGELES Out in Hollywood, the vision finally came to life. The Cubs believe they will one day be starring in October baseball.

So much has to happen before that becomes a reality, but the Cubs took a step forward on Sunday by green-lighting Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters from Triple-A Iowa.

Ready or not, the two former first-round picks will get a chance to show they belong alongside their buddy Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, who at the age of 22 now seems like an old veteran on this team.

It was 83 degrees and sunny as Jackson looked all around Dodger Stadium.

I caught myself laughing a couple times: Youre kidding me right now? Jackson said after a 7-6 loss. (Its a) pretty indescribable feeling inspiring. I look forward to the days and hopefully years to come.

Jackson said it was hard to soak it all in. They were running on almost no sleep after getting the call from scoutingplayer development chief Jason McLeod late Saturday night and waking up for a 6 a.m. flight from Des Moines to Dallas, where they connected to Los Angeles.

In his big-league debut, Jackson went 2-for-4 with a walk, a run scored and a strikeout. That was all that seemed to be holding back the 24-year-outfielder from Cal-Berkeley, whose 158 strikeouts this season began to overshadow his 15 homers, 27 stolen bases and .817 OPS.

With the strikeouts, I wanted to be here and I knew how close I was and pushed myself a little too hard to be here, Jackson said. But Im here now and Im going to play my guts out and my heart out every day. Thats the type of player I am. Thats the type of player Ill always be.

Jackson rolled in with Vitters, who at 22 finally seems to be living up to the promise that was seen when he became the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 draft. Vitters was hitting .304 with 17 homers and 68 RBI in his first year on the Triple-A level.

Its really amazing, Vitters said. It seems like half the guys here are guys that started out in Iowa (or) Ive known and played with (while) growing up a little bit.

I really just couldnt think of a better situation to be in right now.

The same way that Jackson has struggled with strikeouts, the Cubs need to see improved defensive play from Vitters at third base. But now 20 games under .500, the Cubs (43-63) will use these final two months to see what theyve got.

It will be a good experience for both these guys, general manager Jed Hoyer said. They can help us win for sure and they can also figure out what they need to do up here to have success. Either way: If they have success, wonderful. And if they struggle a little bit, hopefully theyll learn from those struggles and they can spend the whole offseason working on those things.

We had that with Rizzo in San Diego. He came up and struggled and spent the whole winter working on (those) things and its obviously really helped him this time around. So I dont really see a downside for either one of these guys as far as their development goes in coming up here and experiencing what the big leagues are about.

The Cubs believe Jackson will benefit from working directly with manager Dale Sveum and hitting coach James Rowson.

Its big-league pitching, Jackson said. It goes up a level. Im excited to be here and work with James and Dale and improve as a hitter so that I can beat big-league pitching and hopefully dominate.

Jackson said that last word quietly, matter-of-factly, and his breezy confidence could become part of this teams identity.

This is what its going to be hopefully from here on out, Rizzo said. We all need to stick together. Theres going to be bumps. Theres going to be valleys. But we just got (to) come together and play hard, have each others back.

Rizzo launched a game-tying homer in the top of the ninth inning, a high-arcing shot that just cleared the right-field wall before another bullpen meltdown had Hanley Ramirez and the Dodgers piling on each other celebrating a walk-off win.

Theres plenty of time to write an alternate ending.

I thought we were going to get a little magic for my first game, Jackson said, but well save that for a later date.

Where Cubs stand in updated All-Star voting

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USA TODAY

Where Cubs stand in updated All-Star voting

The Cubs were swept in four games at the hands of the Reds. The news on the All-Star ballot hasn’t been kind as well.

Starting positions for Cubs players at the 2018 MLB All-Star game is looking a little bleak. But catcher Willson Contreras is still in striking distance.

MLB updated its third round of All-Star ballots for the National League. Dating back a week ago, Contreras was behind Giants catcher Buster Posey by 90,000 votes. As of now, that number is quite similar with Posey up 92,000 votes.

For other Cubs players, the margins have continued to grow in the wrong direction as the week has gone along.

The race for first base is a clear cut path for Braves first basemen Freddie Freeman. With nearly 2,200,000 votes to Freeman’s name, he’s ahead of Anthony Rizzo by nearly 1.3 million votes. At this point last week, Rizzo was down 870,000 votes.

The race for second base is a bit closer. Javier Baez has complied 1,186,243 votes, but he still trails Braves’ Ozzie Albies by 222,000 votes.

But Baez shouldn’t be too comfortable. Reds second basemen Scooter Gennett is just 19,000 votes behind him. Gennett could leap frog Baez, with still 10 days left to vote.

If Baez can get his name ahead of Albies, he’d become the second Cub to start at second base for the second time in three years, when Ben Zobrist started in 2016.

Kris Bryant, who has struggled this year offensively, is still struggling in the Midsummer Classic standings. Rockies third basemen Nolan Arenado leads Bryant by 646,400 votes, compared to 447,000 votes last week.

Rounding out the infield with Addison Russel at shortstop, he still sits in third place, trailing Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson and Giants Brandon Crawford.

In the outfield, it is more of the same for Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, and Ben Zobrist. Heyward sits in seventh place with 750,688 votes. Schwarber in eighth has 706,374 votes, and Zobrist has 694,377 votes in ninth.

Even though the Cubs probably won’t see multiple starters on the field this time around, it doesn’t mean they won’t have a chance to be selected as reserves.

Cub faithful still has time to get their players to the All-Star game. Voting ends July 5 at 11 p.m. CT.

The next wave of Blackhawks defensemen is coming

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USA TODAY

The next wave of Blackhawks defensemen is coming

It seems like yesterday the Blackhawks were scraping for young, impact defensemen prospects. Just one, even.

Oh, how that's changed significantly over the last 12 months.

In 2015 and 2016, the Blackhawks did not own a first-round pick. And before that, they hadn't drafted a defenseman in the first round since Dylan Olsen — 28th overall — in 2009. Luckily, they had already hit on Duncan Keith (second round in 2002) and Brent Seabrook (first round in 2003) in back-to-back drafts, and two years later on Niklas Hjalmarsson (fourth round in 2005).

That was a long time ago. Keith is turning 35 in July and Seabrook turned 33 in April. The Blackhawks have gotten that second wave of talent up front with Alex DeBrincat, Vinnie Hinostroza, Nick Schmaltz and Dylan Sikura. The same can't be said for the defense.

But it's coming.

Since last June, the Blackhawks have added defensemen Henri Jokiharju, Ian Mitchell, Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin to their pipeline and used each of their three first-round picks in the past two drafts to do it. Mitchell was the lone second-round pick, and he had an oustanding freshman season at Denver, meaning he could be ready sooner than later — probably after his sophomore campaign.

Despite the need for defensemen, the Blackhawks never wavered on their draft approach and the desire to add instant help didn't impact how they went about this past weekend. Draft the best player available and you can't go wrong.

The good news for the Blackhawks is, the players that were rated highest on their board when their picks rolled around were positional needs. How fitting.

"Coming into the draft, we're just looking for the best value players we have; guys ranked the highest at their spots," Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said on drafting Boqvist and Beaudin. "It just so happened they're both defensemen, which is great because that's a very important position. I think they're the highest valued assets.

"Calling around this week about potential trades and looking for players and they're the hardest things to find. We didn't draft them just because they're defensemen. We like both of their style of play, their skill set. I think they both play the modern NHL game. Both have bright futures."

There are high hopes for all four of them.

Then you look deeper inside the organization and you'll find Gustav Forsling, who was once considered the Blackhawks' top defensive prospect and currently finds himself in the five-spot. Yet, he's the most NHL ready and could have a full-time role with the Blackhawks next season.

Peel the next layer and you'll see Blake Hillman, who showed promise and great situational defensive awareness in his brief stint last season. Dennis Gilbert, who brings size and physicality, offers a different element and will continue his developement with the Rockford IceHogs. And then there's Lucas Carlsson and Carl Dahlstrom, both of whom could make things interesting in training camp.

Suddenly, the Blackhawks are faced with having, what you would call, a good problem to have by putting together one of the best young defensive farm systems in the league.

Now, that's not to say that each of these guys are going to pan out the way the Blackhawks are hoping they will. But you're increasing your chances by collecting a number of players with high-end talent and creating competition.

The real question is when they'll all be ready.

While there may be temptation to push them along to help the Blackhawks in the short term, it's important to resist that because the future on the back end looks promising if they each grow at their own pace.

Boqvist has the potential to be Erik Karlsson as a best-case scenario. Even if he can be half of that, that's a win. Jokiharju's ceiling is whatever he wants it to be, and throwing Boqvist into the mix perhaps alleviates some pressure off his shoulders. Beaudin and Mitchell each have top-four potential and should develop as such.

Knowing what they could be capable of with proper development, there shouldn't be any reason to rush it. Just be excited they're on the way.