Not close enough: Cubs dont see big fixes in free agency yet


Not close enough: Cubs dont see big fixes in free agency yet

The Cubs are a flawed, but interesting team, with enough pieces and big-market resources to make you wonder just how far they are away from contention. This is a brand-name front office that was hired to bring October baseball to Wrigley Field every year.

The Cubs got a bounce from Anthony Rizzo, and the starting pitching has been solid, though no one knows just how long Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza will be around, or if it will last.

But there was Starlin Castro driving a ball into the left-field bleachers, Darwin Barney making plays all over the field and Jeff Samardzija keeping up with his learning curve.

At least until the thunder and lightning and pouring rain covered the North Side on Wednesday night. After a 77-minute rain delay, the game was called in the eighth inning and the Cubs took a 5-1 victory over the Miami Marlins.

The Cubs (37-53) have now won 13 of their last 18 games. But whatever happens the rest of this season, it doesnt sound like it will be enough to convince Theo Epstein to make a splash for 2013.

Sometimes that works out for you, Epstein said, and more often than not it doesnt. Theres a price to pay for that kind of thing. So if you get tempted and you get impatient and you try to solve your problems through free agency, theres always a price to pay, and it usually happens pretty soon thereafter or towards the end of those deals.

Free agencys definitely a nice way to add talent to an organization without giving up talent. But you cannot make an organization that way. And we have a lot of steps ahead of us that we need to take care of before were in a position to add a finishing piece or two through free agency.

Chairman Tom Ricketts inherited several bad contracts, showed an interest in player development and will defer on baseball matters. Epstein left Boston after an epic collapse last September. Red Sox Nation enjoys picking apart his mistakes in free agency. The credit for those two World Series titles seems to be grudging.

Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder werent the right players at the right time last winter, though the Cubs found them useful for misdirection. The franchise is still waiting to tap into a renovated Wrigley Field and the big television contracts that have juiced the baseball economy.

But even with a scaled-down major-league payroll, more money coming off the books and the caps the new collective bargaining agreement put on the draft and international signings, you could be waiting to see a megadeal.

Well always look to free agency, Epstein said. Well always be on every free agent and see if theres the right player or the right value. But if we sat around and drew up a plan and had free agency as the answer to most of our problems, wed be on a fools errand there.

We need to build the foundation. We need to have scouting we believe in, player development we believe in, a steady flow of prospects, a core of young players. And then you can look to free agency. If the right deal is there ahead of schedule, great, but were not going to count on it. Lets put it that way.

Jorge Soler is supposed to be the designated hitter and appear in his first game on Thursday in the Arizona rookie league. But the 30 million Cuban defector is years away from the majors.

Right now, the focus will be on the development of players like Samardzija (4.57 ERA), who made it through five innings against the Marlins (44-47), giving up one run and striking out nine.

As manager Dale Sveum said: Hes going to be that guy that hopefully we can build around and be the No. 1, the No. 2 guy.

That time could be rapidly approaching, with Dempster expected to be dealt to a contender and a Garza decision potentially coming by the July 31 deadline.

You just kind of got to stay on your toes and understand that tomorrow might be a little different, Samardzija said. But I understand what my role is on this team, and what its going to be in the future. Im really trying to do everything I can today, so down the road, when you are relied upon, you are ready to take the reins and do what you got to do.

Obviously, I want to be the guy, but it also wouldnt hurt to have Dempster and Garza throwing in front of you or behind you. So you just dont know whats going to happen. You dont know what kind of offers they have and what theyre looking for or if anyones willing to give that up.

What if Samardzija and Garza were throwing behind someone like Cole Hamels next season? As Sveum has said, starting pitching is everything. At the very least, the Cubs have changed the subject, from breaking the franchise record for losses, to looking for missing pieces.

We hope were very competitive very soon, Epstein said. But just sitting there and wanting it to be so doesnt make it so. You have to build an organization. I know you get sick of me saying this, but there are no shortcuts.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction


Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”

Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks


Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks

COLUMBUS — Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday:

1. Corey Crawford steals the show

The Blackhawks had no business winning this game. They were being outshot 28-15 through two periods, committed four penalties and gave up 18 high-danger chances in the game. 

But Crawford bailed out his team like he often has done in the past, and was zoned in from the moment the puck dropped. He finished with 37 saves on 38 shots for a save percentage of .974, picking up his first win since Dec. 17, 2017.

"Yeah, I felt good," Crawford said. "I think everyone was playing hard, rebounds, taking away sticks. That was a great effort by everyone."

"He was standing on his head for us," Patrick Kane said. "As Q would say, that’s a goalie win for us."

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "That was vintage Crow."

2. Tic-tac-toe leads to go-ahead goal

The Blue Jackets were clearly the better team through two periods. The Blackhawks were fortunate to go into second intermission with the game still tied at 1-1.

The next goal was crucial, and they got it thanks to a give-and-go play by Brent Seabrook and Kane, who buried home a wide open net to give the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead with 4:14 left in regulation.

Was Kane expecting Seabrook to pass it back?

"No. Not a chance," Kane said laughing. "That’s his wheelhouse, coming right down there. He scores a lot of goals from that area. Saw it was like a 2-on-2, he was coming late, he jumped in the play on the first goal, did a great job, jumped in the play on that goal. Made a great pass. When I saw it come back, I just tried to stay patient, settle it down and make sure I hit the net, because I knew I had the whole open net."

3. Busy night for PK

The Blackhawks penalty kill was very busy. It was also on it's A-game, partly because their best penalty killer was Crawford.

The Blackhawks spent 6:31 of the first 40 minutes killing penalties, allowing 11 shots total on it. But most importantly, they killed off all four penalties.

"We had some tough clears, but I thought we did some good things," Quenneville said. "We withstood some extended PK zone time there and found a way to keep us in the game. Obviously that next goal was huge and that second period was a big part of them having so much zone time, keeping us in our end. We'll say, hey good job, but Crow was the best penalty killer tonight."

4. Catching up with Kane on Artemi Panarin

Kane and Panarin spent only two seasons together, but they brought Blackhawks fans out of their seats on a nightly basis and it was amazing to watch the instant on-ice chemistry they shared. And most of it was non-verbal, which made it even more impressive. They were always on the same wavelength.

"Sometimes it takes time to build some chemistry but that was one of those things where it was like, I don't want to say instant chemistry, but after one or two preseason games we kind of new that maybe something special was going to happen," Kane told NBC Sports Chicago. "I think he scored in his first game in the NHL, we had a really good game, we had the puck a lot, we sensed that this could be a fun way to play hockey."

Off the ice, Kane said Panarin would use Google translate on his phone to communicate while Kane would try using a Russian accent while saying English words.

The two of them got a chance to hang out for a little bit on Friday and Kane still keeps tabs on his former linemate.

"I always really enjoy watching him," Kane said. "If we have an off night or something, he's a really fun player to watch."