The Jorge Soler Watch begins now


The Jorge Soler Watch begins now

As the hype began to build around Anthony Rizzo, Cubs manager Dale Sveum admitted that he looked forward to scanning the minor-league report in his e-mail inbox each morning, to see how the organizations top prospect did the night before with Triple-A Iowa.

The Cubs have also installed cameras inside the stadiums at each of their minor-league affiliates. Team president Theo Epstein watched virtually every Rizzo at-bat on video before promoting the 22-year-old first baseman to Chicago last month.

Rizzo has been even better than advertised, hitting .338 with four homers and 10 RBI and showing the potential to be a Gold Glove defender. This doesnt start and end with Rizzo, but the Cubs have won 14 of their last 19 games after Thursdays 4-2 victory over the Miami Marlins.

Some 1,700 miles from Wrigley Field, the next big thing was supposed to make his debut that night with the Mesa Cubs in the Arizona rookie league. The plan was for Jorge Soler, the 30 million Cuban defector, to get three at-bats as the designated hitter.

The Cubs hope those are the first steps toward Clark and Addison.

Its that time, Sveum said. (Youll) get up in the morning and look at the box scores and see how he does. (Youll want to) get the managers report and see how his swings were and how he played the outfield.

Its a pretty impressive swing and strength (level) and obviously body type that should play out in the big leagues.

The Cubs didnt rush Rizzo, and they will show patience with Soler, who at the age of 20 will have to assimilate into a new culture while adjusting to professional baseball.

Jason McLeod, the head of scouting and player development, hopes to see Soler at a minor-league affiliate later this summer and possibly play in the Arizona Fall League (if not, it will be instructional league).

I dont anticipate him being down there very long, McLeod said. I think hell let us know where hes ready to go.

The Cubs had targeted Soler since the beginning of last offseason, with several high-level executives scouting him in the Dominican Republic around Thanksgiving. This was one last talent grab before the new labor deal restricted spending on the international market.

The process of establishing residency and resolving immigration issues took months. The Cubs didnt formally announce their deal with Soler until June 30, beating the deadline set by the collective bargaining agreement.

Its just good to get him back in game action, McLeod said. When we saw him last November, he had been playing a lot and performing incredibly well against all kinds of different pitching. So weve taken it a little slow in terms of seeing live batting practice and wanting to get him as close to ready as we can.

We didnt want to just throw him right in there because he hadnt played in a game in five, six months.

The Cubs believe No. 6 overall pick Albert Almora, a bilingual high school outfielder from South Florida, could help smooth the transition. Almoras family is of Cuban descent. McLeod indicated that Almora and Soler had actually met before and became friendly during the 2010 World Junior Championships in Canada.

Almora, who agreed to a 3.9 million bonus last week, is in the middle of his mini spring training in Arizona and is expected to play his first game on Monday. Soler and Almora could go down as pivotal moves in the first year of the Epstein administration.

When we signed Albert, McLeod said, he was actually really excited because he knew Soler was in Mesa (and wanted) to see him again. He actually asked if he could room with him, but (Soler) already had a roommate down there.

McLeod admitted that he doesnt have much experience dealing with Cuban players, but credited Louis Eljaua and Jose Serra for all the background work and relationship building they did in the Dominican Republic.

Information is everything to this front office. In the run-up to the draft, Epstein stressed character and makeup and how a player would handle failure. Clearly, the Cubs felt like they were able to break down the barriers and invested in Soler, who seemed like such a mystery to the outside world.

As a scout, you get a feel for just the type of human being someone is, McLeod said, whether they speak English or not. This was a kid at 19 years old at the time who was very mature. Even though he wasnt speaking English, he really went out of his way to try to communicate. Just the way he carried himself, there was a real genuineness about him.

(Given) the history that our guys (had with him) its never easy dealing with these kind of dollars but that made it more (comfortable).

Trey Burton, Adrian Amos earn Bears’ top grades from Pro Football Focus for Week 7


Trey Burton, Adrian Amos earn Bears’ top grades from Pro Football Focus for Week 7

The Bears were not at their best against the New England Patriots on Sunday. They made plenty of mistakes on all three phases and gave Tom Brady too many opportunities to control the game.

It wasn’t all bad from Chicago, though. Trey Burton emerged as a new favorite weapon of Mitchell Trubisky, and the tight end was the Bears’ highest-graded player in the game by Pro Football Focus.

Burton had a career high 11 targets, nine catches and 126 yards with a touchdown, giving Trubisky a 144.7 passer rating when targeting his top tight end.

Seven of Burton’s targets and six of his catches traveled 10 or more yards in the air, according to PFF.

Defensively, safety Adrian Amos led the pack with a 74.6 overall grade. He did not miss a tackle after missing a career-high five last week, and he allowed only one catch for eight yards against the Patriots.

On the bottom of the scale, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd received the second-lowest grade of his career (38.9 overall) for his performance. He did not record any pressure on the quarterback in 13 pass rushing snaps, and he allowed two catches for 13 yards and a touchdown in coverage against running back James White.

Wide receiver Allen Robinson had a career-low grade as well at 44.9 overall. He was clearly limited by his groin injury, targeted five times with one catch for four yards and a dropped pass.

Overall, the Bears were able to stick with one of the top teams in the AFC while also leaving a lot of room for improvement. It’s a step in the right direction from where Chicago was in recent seasons.

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of tough centers to begin career


Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of tough centers to begin career

Don't tell Wendell Carter Jr. the center position is a dying breed.

The 19-year-old rookie hasn't exactly been able to ease into the NBA, finding himself up against a handful of All-Stars and powerful frontcourts just five days into his career.

It culminated Monday night with a date against Mavericks center DeAndre Jordan, and once again the seventh overall pick held his own. It was much of the same as it was against Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Detroit's Andre Drummond last week (and Nikola Jokic in the preseason finale): some good, some bad, plenty of poise and zero backing down. The NBA is unforgiving, but this could very well be the toughest stretch Carter faces all season.

"He’s playing against top level centers now," Fred Hoiberg said before Monday's game. "It’s a great experience for him. He’s going to learn and get better and he plays within himself, we will continue to look for him to be more aggressive."

He was as aggressive as the Bulls have seen him against Jordan and the Mavericks. He blew by the 20 and 18 minutes he played in the first two games of the year, totalling 32 minutes. His final line won't tell the story - 4 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and a block - of a Carter who defended well at the rim, picking and choosing his spots on when to attack shots and when to simply use his verticality.

He wasn't credited for a block but he contested a Jordan dunk that turned into a Bobby Portis dunk on the other end. Plus-minus isn't always a good indicator of a player's worth, but Carter was a +5 in a 14-point Bulls loss. He even attempted a corner 3-pointer early in the shot clock, showing no hesitation. Carter's had his moments, but it's also apparent he's got a 19-year-old body going up against veterans each night. That'll come with time in the weight room. For now the experience is 

"I appreciate the fact I’m able to play against these very talented bigs early in my career," Carter said after the loss to the Pistons. "What I need to work on is I have to get stronger; that’s the first thing I recognize; just being up against the best. I love the competition. It’s always a great feeling going against the best."

What the Bulls are finding out is they have a player mature beyond his years. As he progresses he'll continue to get more difficult assignments. He had his rookie moment late in Monday's loss, committing a turnover in the backcourt after the Bulls had cut the deficit to five with 35 seconds left. The fouls are also an issue, as Carter has committed 10 in three games (after committing 17 in five preseason games).

That doesn't necessarily seem important for a Lottery-bound team, but considering the continued struggles of Robin Lopez (and Cristiano Felicio is entirely out of the rotation) it is. Lopez had 2 points and 1 rebound in 10 minutes while committing five personal fouls. In three games he has 11 personal fouls and 11 points, and also has more turnovers (five) than rebounds (four). If the Bulls are going to compete until Lauri Markkanen returns, Carter will need to hover around the 32 minutes he played Monday.

He'll get a much easier test on Wednesday when the Charlotte Hornets arrive in town. Cody Zeller doesn't exactly have the credentials of a Jokic or Embiid, meaning Carter may have a little more room to work. 

The Bulls know they have something in Carter. It'll be abother month until they can deploy him alongside Markkanen, but if the first three games are any indication, Carter won't have any problems matching up with some of the league's best.