Bears

This time, Cubs think Rizzo can live up to the hype

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This time, Cubs think Rizzo can live up to the hype

The 38,516 fans had filed out of Wrigley Field. The players had showered and left the clubhouse, about to enjoy a wide-open night in Chicago before the off-day.

After Wednesdays 8-6 win over the San Diego Padres capped by Darwin Barneys first walk-off homer on any level the Cubs shifted to their No. 1 priority.

Baseball czar Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer watched Max Fried, a high school lefty from California, throw from the mound. Chairman Tom Ricketts and president of business operations Crane Kenney hung around the batting cage.

Manager Dale Sveum tossed batting practice to Carlos Correa, a shortstop from Puerto Rico. Executives, scouts, coaches Randy Bush, Tim Wilken, Oneri Fleita, Shiraz Rehman, Chris Bosio, Dave McKay all took in the scene.

The Cubs (18-32) could have as many as 40 prospects come through the North Side before the June 4 draft. Its all part of being thorough, one of the buzzwords in Epsteins front office.

Keep that in mind the next time someone asks about top prospect Anthony Rizzo, whose right wrist is said to be feeling better, which should allow him to go back to crushing the Pacific Coast League.

Scouting guru Jason McLeod drafted Rizzo for the Boston Red Sox, and was involved in the Adrian Gonzalez and Andrew Cashner trades with the Padres. The Cubs executives who promoted Rizzo last season felt like they cut corners, and it wont happen again.

Its dj vu, McLeod said. We went through the exact same thing last year and couldnt be happier with him. (Its) not the numbers hes putting up. Its the development that we talked about. He has been working on some things mechanically, his approach (and) his day-to-day routine.

Because he went through (that) last year with the anticipation in San Diego, and the struggles once he got up, its made him a better player mentally, because hes much stronger coming out of that.

I think hes in his finishing stages now, and it shouldnt be too long before hes up here.

To reset, the Padres were sinking below .500 last June, and werent getting enough production out of first baseman Brad Hawpe. So Hoyer promoted Rizzo, who had hit .365 with 16 homers and 63 RBIs in 52 games at Triple-A Tucson.

That line mirrors what Rizzo has done so far at Triple-A Iowa .354 average with 17 homers and 46 RBIs in 48 games. What he did last season in San Diego hitting .141 with 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats has been seared into everyones thinking.

Padres manager Bud Black understood when a reporter mentioned how Cubs fans have become obsessed with Rizzo.

Thats just like our fans were it hasnt changed, Black said. Hes putting up tremendous Triple-A numbers that get people excited, which they should, because hes a great, talented young player.

When he came to us, I think the hype (got to him). Initially, he tried to live up to it, meaning he tried too hard. He was probably a little bit amped, overly excited, and when you take that into the batters box, youre not yourself.

Theres a big difference between Triple-A pitching and major-league pitching. Theres a learning curve and Anthony in a small sample size of at-bats with us hadnt quite gotten there yet.

Hes still a guy that can continue to grow as a player, as I suspect he will. The thing about Anthony is hes a bright kid. He has the ability to make adjustments.

Hoyer has said that no minor-league player should be viewed as the savior for a major-league offense. The Cubs had no intention of doing anything just for show during a 12-game losing streak, and they responded by scoring 24 runs during this three-game sweep of the Padres (17-35).

Late June looks like a more realistic timeframe for Rizzo. Hoyer made a point to say that Rizzo was only 21 years old last season, and skipped college after the Red Sox took him in the sixth round of the 2007 draft.

Padres first-base coach Dave Roberts who played high school ball with McLeod in San Diego and won a World Series ring with the 2004 Red Sox says Rizzo has what it takes.

Hes going to be a nice player, Roberts said. I think that last year we were forced to kind of bring him up here and he might not have been ready. You know, he probably wasnt. But I think in that situation, our hand was forced.

Will a nice player be enough for desperate fans? Are there still holes in the swing? Will the hype be overwhelming?

The Cubs certainly feel like theyve done their homework on Rizzo, who overcame Hodgkins lymphoma while in the Red Sox system and has been described as mature beyond his years. He had to go through the screening process the Cubs are using now.

You see a lot of ability and talent, but you really dont know the character, Sveum said. You give somebody a lot of money, sometimes you just dont know the background, so everything you do that way is risky when youre building.

You really need character people. But its a lot of things: Can you handle playing in a city like (Chicago)? Can you handle playing in the playoffs? Can you handle the pressure of these kind of things? So youre always looking for that.

Pretty soon, the Cubs are going to have to find out with Rizzo.

For the Bears' tight ends, there remains an adamant belief that a turnaround is coming soon

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USA Today

For the Bears' tight ends, there remains an adamant belief that a turnaround is coming soon

Matt Nagy has never been shy about the role tight ends play in his offense. The evidence is plain to see: Trey Burton is one of the team’s ‘adjusters,’ a label used for the handful of players that the Bears’ offense relies most-heavily on. Drafting Adam Shaheen with the 45th overall pick in the 2017 Draft is another example. 

Complimenting one with the other was supposed to open up the offense, with Burton operating as the “U” and Shaheen playing more of the traditional “Y” role. Instead, through the first quarter of the season, the pair has combined for 18 catches and 107 yards. Neither have found the end zone yet, and the longest reception from either of them has been 11 yards. 

“I wouldn’t say they’re playing poorly,” Bears’ tight end coach Kevin Gillbride said on Tuesday. “... but I don’t think we’re playing great. I think that we do have improvements to make. But again, I do like where their heads are at. They understand exactly where they need to improve, and how it’s going to help our team win.” 

The production needs to improve, but with the additions of Cordarrelle Patterson, Mike Davis, and David Montgomery, there are a few more mouths to feed this season. 

“We’ve added a lot of weapons as well,” he said. “You’ve got to find that groove as an offense as well. I think as an offense we’re still figuring that out. But there are a lot of people to deliver the football to. And that’s never a bad thing, you know.” 

Some of Burton’s issues are still health-related, as he’s working to feel normal again after dealing with groin issues all offseason. Coaches have been pleased in recent weeks with how Burton’s looked in practice, and feel the unit as a whole isn’t far from the production that’s been expected from them. 

“It’s hard to really put into quantitative terms,” he said. “But it might just be the speed with which we’re running our routes, the way that we’re getting in and out of breaks, the way we’re finishing on the backside of a zone scheme. The better footwork and pad level on a front side of a play. There’s a number of different things that have improved.” 

One byproduct from the unit’s lack of production has been gameday opportunities for J.P. Holtz, who has seen his snap count go (modestly) up in each of the last two games. For a group that’s looking for any type of spark, Holtz’s contributions in both the pass and run game haven’t gone unnoticed. His 16-yard reception against the Raiders was a season-high from a Bears’ tight end. 

“Adding JP to that mix has helped,” Gillbride said. “He’s shown up as far as having catches and things of that nature, because of toughness he’s shown in the running game that have now led to open completions. I mean, that’s the reality of it. It really is all interwoven.” 

It’s been an undoubtedly disappointing start to the season, and Gillbride has had to spend time in meetings making sure that his guys know how close to breaking through the group is. They’ve addressed their shortcomings as a whole, and through the last couple weeks have spent time focusing on the little moments that could have, as he said, turned a “two-yard run into a 40-yard run.”

“It’s not as far off as everyone’s making this out to be,” he added. “It’s really not.”  

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On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

Even before his surprise mid-September call-up, things were shaping up for Nico Hoerner to be a big part of the 2020 Cubs.

Now it looks like a certainty after the way he played in his 20-game cup of coffee in the final few weeks of 2019.

The organization's top prospect excelled at every level after the Cubs made him a first-round pick (24th overall) in June 2018. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, but when he returned to Double-A Tennessee, the Cubs had him playing second base and center field in addition to shortstop, his natural position. That only boosted his value, as the Cubs clearly have holes at both center and second that they need to address this winter.

When he was pressed into duty after injuries to Javy Baez and Addison Russell, Hoerner proved the moment was certainly not too big for him. He hit .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBI in 20 games while playing solid defense at shortstop and displaying his great contact skills. 

While it's not unheard of for 22-year-olds to come up and immediately make an impact in the big leagues, Hoerner's case was particularly impressive given he played just 89 minor-league games and had not taken an at-bat above the Double-A level.

And Hoerner didn't just turn in solid production on the field — he was actually credited with helping provide a spark to the rest of the club, even though the season ultimately didn't end up the way the Cubs wanted. 

"He's been a little bit of a spark plug for us," Jon Lester said at the beginning of the Cubs' final homestand. "Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — just not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball. Sometimes we all need to get back to that. Sometimes we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."

His former manager, Joe Maddon, called Hoerner a "differencemaker" down the stretch and felt confident he could stick at shortstop long-term.

It was also Hoerner's attitude and temperament that really drew rave reviews. Everybody — from Maddon to Theo Epstein to fellow teammates — were blown away by his sense of calm and confidence even while playing in pressure-packed big-league games. Those are the intangibles the Cubs have loved about Hoerner since they drafted him and don't expect that to change anytime soon.

"This is the type of human being he is," Epstein said. "He processes things really well he has strong character, he's in it for the right reasons, he's got a great family. He's really an invested member of the organization, a teammate and a winner."

This is the way he's always been, as his mom, Keila Diehl, explained to Kelly Crull in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago's broadcast on Sept. 14.

"He's just not full of himself," Diehl said. "He could be, and he's just not. ... He's just like this nice, ordinary guy — no attitude. Always brings a lot of energy and positivity to any team he's on."

That's exactly the guy we saw in Chicago in the final three weeks of the season. 

So as he recovers from his first full season of professional ball, Hoerner is in a position to forge a huge role for himself in Chicago next year. At the moment, it's reasonable to expect that to come at second base, but his ability to play shortstop might very well make Russell expendable this winter, especially with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the latter would be due $5.1 million in arbitration in 2020. 

The Cubs made it a point to get Hoerner some playing time at both second base and center field in the final two games of the 2019 season and he could at the very least offer a depth option in the outfield. 

His versatility, intangibles, and competitive drive present an intriguing package and his offensive skillset can help bring some diversity to the Cubs lineup. Hoerner is not really a power hitter at this point in his career but his hand-eye coordination and contact ability provide a refreshing style to this offense.

Simply put, Hoerner is just a good *baseball* player and profiles as the type of guy that can help any winning team in some capacity. 

The only question now is: Will the Cubs stash him in the minors for the early part of the season or let him continue to develop at Wrigley Field?

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level. 

"These days, it’s becoming a younger player’s game. If you look around baseball, the best teams have young players dominating. Yes, it’s not linear. There’s gonna be regression at the major-league level. But our players have had some real regression that’s taken them a while to dig out from. That’s something that we have to solve — finding ways to finish development off as best you can in the minor leagues, but understanding too that you need to create an environment at the major-league level with players who are expected to perform night after night are still developing, still working on their weaknesses, still making adjustments to the league." 

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