Bears

Packers Driver deal cause for "concern"

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Packers Driver deal cause for "concern"

A stated reason for the change at general manager for the Bears was the failure to gain enough ground on the Green Bay Packers over the last decade. That task hasnt gotten any easier.

In these situations you need either one side (the Bears) to rise or the other (the Packers) to backslide. One has happened; the other, not so sure.

The problem isnt the Bears. Indeed, the trend arrow was pointing up under Jerry Angelo with additions of Jay Cutler and Julius Peppers and under Phil Emery with Brandon Marshall all additions of proven players from other rosters and presumably with a draft that included immediate impact players in the first two rounds (Shea McClellin, Alshon Jeffery).

But the Packers and receiver Donald Driver have agreed to a contract restructuring that presumably allows the distinguished veteran to finish his career with Green Bay.

The problem for the Bears is not specifically Driver, although his 37 catches would have tied Johnny Knox for team high among Bears wide receivers but was only good enough for fifth among Packers.

Its that Driver is the No. 4 or 5 receiver in Green Bay and that the Packers also have four young receivers (Diondre Borel, Tori Gurley, Shaky Smithson, Dale Moss) clawing for roster spots.

The Bears receiver upgrades at the top of the depth chart put a squeeze on Dane Sanzenbacher, assuming that signees Devin Thomas and Eric Weems are in at Nos. 5-6.

The Packers were last in yards allowed last season and felt good enough about their receiver-based offense to spend the first six of their seven draft choices on defense.

So if youre waiting for the other-than-Aaron-Rodgers strength of the Green Bay roster to decline and the Packers to backslide, its may be a while.

Mitch Trubisky begins throwing again as Bears continue to monitor his status for Sunday's game

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USA Today

Mitch Trubisky begins throwing again as Bears continue to monitor his status for Sunday's game

The Bears returned to practice on Monday, the first time the team was at Halas Hall since they left for London almost two weeks ago. Among those who did practice was starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who has been out for most of the last two games with an injured non-throwing shoulder. Head coach Matt Nagy wouldn’t definitively say whether Trubisky would start on Sunday against the Saints, but was encouraged by what he saw from the quarterback in practice. 

“His situation for us is seeing exactly where he’s at with pain,” Nagy said on Monday. “Just all of us collaborating exactly to see where he is, so that we can make a decision as to which way we want to go for this week –– whether he’s ready or if he’s not ready.” 

It was reported that Trubisky suffered a dislocated left shoulder, along with a slight labrum tear, when Minnesota defensive lineman Danielle Hunter tripped up the QB on the Bears’ first offensive drive of their Week 3 win over the Vikings. 

Monday was the first time he had thrown footballs since suffering the injury, a progression that –– along with the Bears moving 3rd string QB Tyler Bray back to the practice squad –– indicates Trubisky may not be far from returning. He wasn’t put on a pitch-count during Monday's practice, and the next step is assessing his pain tolerance. Nagy was adamant, however, in his assurance that if Trubisky is back on the field against New Orleans, it’ll be because the team is fully confident in his ability to absorb hits. 

“If he ends up playing, then he plays,” he said. “... You can’t tell someone to play a game and not get hit. You can’t do it. If you’re okay to play a game, than you’re okay to get hit. It’s not hard – it’s pretty simple.” 

Coming out of the bye, the Bears now head into a doozy of a schedule that includes games against (among others) Philadelphia, New Orleans, Dallas, and Kansas City. The Bears had one of, if not the, least productive offenses in football with Trubisky at the helm through the first three weeks, and Nagy talked on Monday about how the team is quickly approaching the point in the season where title contenders move away from the pack. There’s a good bit of pressure on the offense to figure out a quick fix, but it’s not changing what type of progression they’re expecting to see out of their third-year QB. 

“If he’s able to play, then I want to just be able to see the stuff I’ve always been looking for,” Nagy said. “Which is just in-and-out of the huddle, making throws at the right time, and then making proper decisions –– whether it’s in the run game or the pass game.”

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The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

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USA TODAY

The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

The last time Cubs fans saw Craig Kimbrel on the mound, he was staring bewildered at the left-field bleachers after serving up homers to the Cardinals on back-to-back pitches. It was a moment that became the dagger for the 2019 Cubs, even if it didn't officially eliminate them from postseason contention.

That Sept. 21 outing marked Kimbrel's third blown save and fourth loss of the season and the Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong homers were the eighth and ninth longballs the Cubs closer gave up in just 23 outings and 20.2 innings.

Nobody associated with the Cubs saw things playing out quite like this when they signed him in early June. Even Kimbrel's doubters who believed his struggles at the end of his Red Sox tenure were a harbinger of things to come couldn't have anticipated a 6.53 ERA and 1.60 WHIP from a guy who had a career line of a 1.91 ERA and 0.92 WHIP coming into 2019.

So where do the Cubs go from here?

Kimbrel is still owed $16 million for 2020 and 2021 and is the only truly established pitcher the Cubs currently have in their bullpen for next season with Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop and others ticketed for free agency.

The Cubs opted to shut down Kimbrel for the final week of 2019 to get healthy after dealing with knee and elbow issues but neither injury will require surgery this winter, Theo Epstein said.

"He's really determined to have a great offseason and looking forward to a full and legitimate spring training," Epstein said. "He feels awful about the way this year went, recognized that he was in an unusual position, but I think you'll see a really determined individual who will benefit from the full spring training."

The Cubs better hope so.

For a franchise that is going to again have to take their budget into account when building the 2020 roster, that $16 million price tag is an awful lot if Kimbrel cannot return to the elite closer he was before coming to Chicago.

But even beyond that, the Cubs absolutely need him to lock down the ninth inning. Rowan Wick impressed in 2019 and emerged as maybe the team's best reliever down the stretch, but he doesn't have much of a track record. The same goes for lefties Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. The Cubs have reason to feel optimistic about all three pitchers as up-and-coming relievers, but putting too much stock into a trio of guys without much experience is an easy way to run into major bullpen problems. 

Right now, those are the only four names you can confidently pencil into the 2020 bullpen, though other in-house options loom (Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Danny Hultzen, Duane Underwood Jr., etc.) depending on how the Cubs configure their rotation and the rest of the roster.

There's obvious concern surrounding Kimbrel, but there's also a reasonable case to be confident 2020 will be a different story. In his entire career, he has served up homers at a rate of just 0.72 per 9 innings, so his 3.92 HR/9 this season is a clear aberration that not even the juiced ball can full explain away. 

The velocity dip (down nearly 1 mph from 2018 and 2 mph from 2017) is scary, but may also be related to the odd year Kimbrel had. 

Baseball players — and closers, in particular — are very routine-oriented and no plan can make up for a situation that saw Kimbrel facing live hitters nearly four months later than usual. He's used to throwing off a mound and ramping up in spring training in mid-February and was instead still in a free agency stalemate until early June.

When he was signed, it was viewed as a clear upgrade for the Cubs, who were plagued by early-season bullpen issues. They were only able to afford Kimbrel because Ben Zobrist took a leave of absence and left several million dollars on the table for Epstein to put towards addressing an obvious weakness on the roster.

At the time, signing a World Champion closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory was the best possible way Epstein could shore up the bullpen.

"There was some element of risk, because of the unknown of an elite closer coming in mid-season," Epstein said on the team's final road trip. "That's a risk we were prepared to take because of the opportunity that presented itself. The resources got opened up with Zo's absence and the opportunity of an elite closer sitting there for a contract that was certainly reasonable compared to what most guys of his ilk were getting over the long-term. 

"So, we were prepared to take that. We thought it was a really good fit and we were prepared to take that risk. It hasn't turned out as we had hoped. It obviously [killed] Craig that he wasn't able to help down the stretch here. The two trips to the DL and not being able to reach his accustomed level on a consistent basis, you have to think it's related to not having his normal foundation underneath him. It's something we'll certainly talk to him about and how to have a really effective offseason and get back to his normal Spring Training, so he can get back to being himself consistently."