Cubs

Vilified receiver group under pressure from within

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Vilified receiver group under pressure from within

For most of the past several seasons, Bears wide receivers were the objects of a steady stream of doubts at best, building to an occasional tidal wave of criticism.

They didnt like it. Understandable. Johnny Knox, for instance, didnt like losing a starting job in training camp to the likes of Mike Martz favorite Roy Williams before the team had played even a preseason game last year.

So how will the chemistry and collective mood be this year after the organization invested draft choices and money in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery?

They don't fear anybody. Why would they? said receivers coach Darryl Drake. I promise you, Devin Hester is not reading press clippings about Alshon Jeffery, but I bet Alshon Jeffery is reading press clippings about Devin Hester.

Devin Hester doesn't give a crap. He just wants to go out there and play.

That will have to be earned.

Hester, Knox, Earl Bennett, Dane Sanzenbacher none have caught more than the 57 Hester collected in 2009. Marshall has had no fewer than the 81 he had last season as a Miami Dolphin.

None of the returning Bears receivers were drafted higher than the 57th-overall slot for Hester in 2006, and that was as a returnercornerback. Jeffery was the 45th-overall pick in the draft last month.

Theres some depth, Drake said. The guys have got to fight. Competition breeds success and I really do believe weve got some competition around here.

If you want to play, go out and make plays, do things the right way, and when the balls in the air, go get it.

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

There is no quick fix for what ails the Cubs offense.

Manny Machado would certainly help. That much is certain.

But dropping one of the game's elite hitters into any lineup would help boost that team's offensive profile. The only question is: Would the long-term cost be worth it for a short-term gain?

Because Machado wouldn't cure everything with this Jekyll and Hyde Cubs offense.

After hammering Reds pitching in Cincinnati last weekend, the Cubs managed to score just 1 run against the Indians in 18 innings and they didn't even have to face Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco.

They went a combined 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

It was also the 42nd different lineup the Cubs have rolled out this season in 46 games.

That's been a point of contention for many, many fans wishing Joe Maddon would stick with one set lineup from 1-through-8 in the order. 

But that will never happen. 

For starters, this way does work. The 2016 Cubs boasted 130 different lineups throughout the course of the season and we all know how that year finished.

A set lineup also won't work because this isn't 1970 and some players are better than others for different matchups against opposing starting pitchers (like Albert Almora Jr. vs. left-handed pitchers and Jason Heyward vs. right-handed pitcher). Also, players need rest to ensure they'll be fresh for the stretch run in August and September and the postseason after that.

"It's such a non-sophisticated conversation," Maddon said. "I don't know how it begins. I've heard it from old baseball dudes — I think fathers pass it down to sons on occasion. It's like teaching your kid how to drive a stick shift; it just gets passed along.

"I try not to comment on it, because really, it's such a poor discussion. There's no sophistication to it whatsoever. It makes zero sense. It doesn't belong in today's game and actually it never belonged in anybody's game."

So what can the Cubs do to find more consistency on offense?

Honestly, not much beyond just continuing to develop. Remember, this is still a very, very young and inexperienced core of position players and growing pains are inevitable.

It's also the nature of the game right now with strikeouts way up and basehits down. 

Offense is naturally an ebb-and-flow, up-and-down kind of thing. Words like "feel" and "confidence" are thrown around so often because they matter.

But with the way baseball has gone, the peaks and valleys have become as prevalent as ever. Try to point to other teams right now that have had no trouble scoring runs on a consistent basis this season.

The Yankees are close, but that's one team. The Braves and Red Sox are the next two closest, but they're not without flaws.

Atlanta has scored just 3 runs in their last 3 games as they dropped a series to Jake Arrieta and the Phillies this week. The Red Sox haven't score more than 6 runs in a game since April 30.

It may seem like the Cubs are on a roller coaster all on their own, but that may just be because of HOW they go through valleys. 

The Cubs still struggle with runners in scoring position, ranking 26th in baseball in that area (.222 AVG). They rank 24th with runners in scoring position and 2 outs (.194 AVG).

But delve deeper and you'll see the Cubs actually rank near the top of baseball in RUNS in such situations. 

With guys in scoring position, they sit 5th in MLB wiith 168 runs. With guys in scoring position and 2 outs, they rank 6th in runs, ahead of the Yankees.

So they're giving themselves plenty of opportunity by getting guys on base and in scoring position often.

Another elite hitter would help things, sure. You could say that for any team in baseball.

But the simple fact of the matter is the Cubs are 4th in MLB in runs scored, 2nd in OBP, 3rd in OPS and 5th in SLG.

They do feast on poor teams and have trouble scoring against better opponents, but every team has that issue to some degree.

Getting Anthony Rizzo — whose 2018 OPS (.661) is almost 200 points below his career mark (.842) — back to his standard MVP-candidate level would certainly help matters, too.

The Cubs are on the right path — trying to use the whole field, hit the ball on a line more, make more contact — but it's not something that will become consistent parts of their respective offensive profiles overnight.

Maddon was actually OK with where his team was at before being shut out Wednesday night.

"I think a lot of guys are doing pretty well right now," Maddon said ahead of the Cubs' 1-0 loss. "...Overall, I kinda like what I'm seeing on the offensive side. I just think that OK, are we doing a better job of not chasing? I think so.

"Are we utilizing the opposite gap a little better? I think so. Strikeouts, I don't think anybody's overtly striking out too much right now. So I kinda like what we're doing with the bats. I kinda do. ... I think a lot of guys are starting to get it."

But there is still one area Maddon will never be satisfied with — getting runners home from third base with less than 2 outs.

"Of course," Maddon laughed, "I'm gonna talk about that for the next 10 years and I'm not gonna like it, probably."

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

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USA TODAY

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

John Calipari's 2017 recruiting class featured five McDonald's All-Americans and Hamidou Diallo, a former five-star recruit who nearly jumped to the NBA the previous year. It also included a lanky 6-foot-6 point guard named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And for the first part of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto native who played his final two high school years in Tennessee, appeared to be a nice fit off the bench for Calipari.

But something flipped. Gilgeous-Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup for good on January 9 and never looked back. He played his best basketball beginning in late February to the end of the season, a span of 10 games against eight NCAA Tournament opponents. In those games Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He shot 51 percent from the field, 50 percent from deep and 84 percent from the free throw line, and added 1.4 steals in nearly 38 minutes per game for good measure. He was one of the best players in the country, and on a team with five McDonald's All-Americans, he was Calipari's best freshman.

"I knew with how hard I worked that anything was possible," SGA said at last week's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "It was just a matter of time before it started clicking and I started to get it rolling."

That stretch included a 17-point, 10-assist double-double against Ole Miss, a 29-point showing against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, and 27 more points in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Buffalo. Even in his worst game of the stretch, a 15-point effort against Kansas State in the Tournament, he made up for 2 of 10 shooting by getting to the free throw line 12, converting 11 of them.

It made his decision to make the jump to the NBA an easy one - that, and another loaded Calipari recruiting class incoming. He stands taller than just about any other point guard in the class and might have as good a jump shot as any. He's adept at getting to the rim, averaging 4.7 free throw attempts per game (that number jumped to 5.6 after he became a starter, and 7.5 in those final 10 games of the season. He isn't the quickest guard in the class, but he uses his feet well, is able to find open shooters due to his height and improved on making mistakes on drive-and-kicks as the season went on.

"I think I translate really well to the next level with there being so much more space on the floor and the open court stretched out," he said. "It only benefits me and my ability to get in the lane and make plays."

There's something to be said for him being the next in line of the Calipari point guards. The ever-growing list includes players like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Murray and DeAaron Fox. It's the NBA's version of Penn State linebackers or Alabama defensive linemen. The success rate is nearly 100 percent when it comes to Calipari's freshmen point guards; even Brandon Knight averaged 18.1 points over a three-year span in the NBA.

"That’s why guys go to Kentucky," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "It prepares them for the next level. Coach (Calipari) does a really good job, especially with point guards, getting them ready for that next level in a short amount of time."

Gilgeous-Alexander didn't test or play in the 5-on-5 scrimmages, but he still came out of Chicago a winner. He measured 6-foot-6 in shoes with a ridiculous 6-foot-11 1/2 wingspan, a full three inches longer than any other point guard at the Combine. He also added, rather uniquely, that he watches of film Kawhi Leonard playing defense. Most players don't mention watching film on different-position players; most players aren't 6-foot-6 point guards.

"(It's) obviously a more versatile league and playing small ball. And with me being able to guard multiple positions, a lot of teams are switching things like the pick and roll off ball screens, so me being able to switch and guard multiple positions can help an organization."

Gilgeous-Alexander's arrow is pointing way up. He appears to be teetering near Lottery pick status, though that could go one way or the other in private team workouts, especially if he's pitted against fellow top point guards like Trae Young and Collin Sexton. But if his rise at Kentucky is any indication, he'll only continue to improve his game, his stock and eventually his draft position.