White Sox

What we learned about the Cubs in April

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What we learned about the Cubs in April

PHILADELPHIA Cubs executives joked about leading the league in press conferences during the offseason. They talked a very good game, viewing things through different lenses and laying out the parallel tracks.

Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod will be judged on what happens across the next five to 10 years. Theyve made it clear that they will prioritize the future over any short-term gain.

The Cubs closed out April at 8-15 with Mondays 6-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in front of another sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park.

It tied together a few emerging themes. The Cubs took away from their bullpen over the winter, and Rafael Dolis gave up the pivotal two-out, two-run double to Placido Polanco in the eighth inning.

This season is all about identifying core players for the future, and the rookie reliever will learn on the job.

Bryan LaHair who had just drilled a two-run shot that tied the game in the eighth looks like a piece to the puzzle. He has reached base safely in 19 straight games, grinding out at-bats the way Epstein believes will become a fundamental part of the organizations identity.

LaHair has hit five of the teams nine home runs, a power outage you could have predicted maybe not to this degree after the front office passed on the big bats on the market. The last time the Cubs finished a month at nine or less was August 1981.

Ive said that from Day 1: Were going to play hard and were not going to give in or give up, LaHair said. Thats just the type of team we are now. Hopefully, it turns around.

Overseeing it all is Dale Sveum, the first-year manager hired to grow into the job and become the next Terry Francona.

Sveum has begun to establish a work culture. He projects calm and doesnt overreact, writing things off as a few hiccups here and there, nothing out of the ordinary.

Obviously, you want better results, Sveum said. The pitchings been OK. The starting pitchings been probably well above average on most days. Its just a matter of us being able to score runs and hit the ball out of the ballpark and create some opportunities to get leads.

The defense has been OK, nothing spectacular, but guys are making strides there.

The efforts been tremendous, the way we ran balls out. Our preparation (for) a game has been as good as Ive seen.

The rotation (4.20 ERA) has essentially kept the Cubs competitive on most nights. Chris Volstad (6.11 ERA) gave up four runs in the first inning on Monday, but kept the Phillies (11-12) scoreless over the next five.

Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija have looked like two frontline starters you can build around.

We have five guys who are going to give everything they got, Garza said. We know what we got to do and we know how we got to win and its all starting pitching.

The starters almost have to be perfect. The Cubs scored more than four runs only six times in April. It was a cruel month for Geovany Soto, whos hitting .127 with one RBI, and Ian Stewart, though his .169 average is somewhat offset by his plus defense.

Starlin Castro (.333) looks like he will develop into a No. 3 hitter, though he has shown lapses in concentration at shortstop (seven errors).

It stinks when youre not winning, especially when you know how hard guys work, utility man Jeff Baker said. The only thing you can do is show up tomorrow and keep grinding and hopefully it will turn.

The Cubs have repeatedly said that they will not bring up Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson just to provide a spark.

Rizzo whos hitting .384 with seven homers and 23 RBI in 22 games and Jackson (28 strikeouts in 89 at-bats) will develop at their own pace at Triple-A Iowa. Their promotions will have almost nothing to do with whats going on with the big-league club.

Trading Marlon Byrd to the Red Sox (and paying most of his salary) for a young pitcher with upside (Michael Bowden) pointed in the direction the Cubs are heading.

The clubhouse makeover is far from over, and the rumors will go into overdrive as the July 31 trade deadline approaches.

Will the fans tune this team out? Business operations knew the optimism generated by the Epstein hire would help at the box office.

Through 13 home games, the Cubs are drawing an average of 37,121, though that reflects tickets sold and not the actual number of bodies at Wrigley Field.

Garza says its going to be a lot of fun this summer. Check back in another month.

Its not the best start we ever had as a team, but you got to hang in there, Soto said. You got to be here for each other as a group in good times and in bad times. You got to pull together.

Jose Abreu is an All-Star starter and Silver Slugger, but will he be with the White Sox past 2019?

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USA TODAY

Jose Abreu is an All-Star starter and Silver Slugger, but will he be with the White Sox past 2019?

It was Jose Abreu's worst season in the major leagues. And he still started the All-Star Game and won a Silver Slugger.

The White Sox have a decision to make at some point, though not necessarily this offseason, on what to do with Abreu in the long term. His on-field production isn't a question. His role as an off-field mentor isn't a question. But when Opening Day 2020 rolls around, he'll be 33 years old. Does that "align" — to borrow a word used very often by Rick Hahn at last week's GM Meetings — with the White Sox long-term plans?

Abreu's entering the final season of his current contract coming off a year defined as much by freak injuries and a prolonged slump as by the accolades he received in spite of those things. For the first time as a big leaguer, he finished a season without hitting at least 25 homers and racking up at least 100 RBIs. Only playing in 128 games, he posted career lows in most stat categories, with his 36 doubles, the second most in his career, a notable exception. His .473 slugging percentage was only the second lowest of his five-year major league career.

But if the awards were any indication — though it should be added there was a dearth of productive first basemen in the American League last season — he still has the ability to be one of the game's best at his position. His 162-game average over the course of the past five seasons: a .295/.353/.516 slash line with 32 home runs and 107 RBIs. Three times in five seasons, Abreu has received MVP votes, finishing as high as fourth during his Rookie of the Year season in 2014.

And on top of all those numbers, Abreu has earned consistent praise for his role off the field. He's been an omnipresent mentor to Yoan Moncada, who's not even two years removed from being the No. 1 prospect in baseball, with the two Cubans' lockers right next to each other in the White Sox clubhouse. And Abreu is touted as an example to all the team's young players, who can look to him as a model for how to go about one's business and prepare on a daily basis.

So the value is obvious. But in order to make a decision on Abreu, the White Sox have to figure out when their planned contention window is going to open. Significant injuries to a host of their highly touted prospects — most notably the elbow injury that forced Michael Kopech into Tommy John surgery — has muddied the waters when it comes to predicting when this wave of minor league talent will was ashore on the South Side.

If that year is soon, if it's still 2020, then having a 33-year-old Abreu in the middle of the order doesn't seem like a bad thing at all. But in order to make that happen, the White Sox will need to give him a contract extension at some point before this time next year, or they'll have to give him a new contract if he were to reach the free-agent market. If the year when the contention window opens is much past 2020, how old is too old to help the White Sox make a championship run? When does the dropoff in production that comes with most aging players arrive?

The White Sox talk highly of Abreu, giving no indication they plan to move on from the guy they spent lavishly on after the 2013 season. And for his part, Abreu continues to talk glowingly about the White Sox and remains committed to saying that he hopes to be in Chicago for the foreseeable future.

"Everybody knows that 2019 is going to be the last season of my current contract, but I try not to think about that because I am part of the White Sox and I believe that I’m going to be part of this organization for a very long time," he said through a translator during a Tuesday conference call with reporters. "That’s something that’s out of my hands right now because I have one season left on this current contract.

"But in case the next season is my last one, I’d like to thank all the White Sox organization and all the people who have been around me during my time on this team, especially the owner, Jerry (Reinsdorf). He has been an outstanding person to me. He’s one of the greatest people that I’ve met in this country.

"But I try not to think about that because I truly believe that I’m going to be part of this organization for a very long time. But we’ll see. I know that this is a business, and that’s the way you have to approach it."

That answer to a reporter's question covered all the bases, a masterclass in the public-relations friendly response. But Abreu does always come off as someone who wants to stick with this team. He knows what's going on in the minor league system and he knows how bright the White Sox future is.

And the White Sox know what Abreu can do. Their reported desire to trade Avisail Garcia might be an indication they're ready to move on from their older players, but Garcia and Abreu are vastly different cases, with Abreu far more productive on the field and more commonly discussed as an asset to the young players off it.

During the 2017 season, the decision on Abreu seemed an easy one for the White Sox: Keep this extraordinarily productive player and team leader around as long as you can. But injuries might have made that decision more difficult — and not the freak ones Abreu suffered during the season, but the ones suffered by prospects that might have changed the timeline of this whole thing, and therefore the "alignment" of Abreu and this team's bright future.

Cody Parkey will kick at Soldier Field Wednesday night

Cody Parkey will kick at Soldier Field Wednesday night

Cody Parkey downplayed the significance of going to practice kicking at Soldier Field Wednesday night, saying he’s heading there to “check all my boxes” and that “it can’t hurt.”

But Parkey’s trip from Halas Hall to the lakefront is noteworthy in the aftermath of the Bears’ kicker missing four PAT/field goal attempts, all of which went off an upright, in Sunday’s 34-22 win over the Detroit Lions. It’ll result in a long day for Parkey, who estimated he’d get back to Halas Hall around 11 p.m. Wednesday night. 

“As a kicker, this is my fifth season doing this, I’ve had highs, I’ve had lows,” Parkey said. “So unfortunately it comes with the territory sometimes. I don’t get down on myself, I know I’m a great kicker. I’m just gonna go out there Sunday and try my best.”

Parkey hasn’t got caught up in the reaction to his historically-bad game, staying off social media and saying he couldn’t care less about ignominiously making a Jimmy Fallon monologue this week. 

“I go home to my wife and my dog, and they don’t really care if I make field goals or not,” Parkey said. “So I find peace in that. I talk to my family, stuff like that. But I don’t beat myself up, I don’t go on social media, I don’t do any of that. I could care less about what anyone thinks of me other than people in this locker room.”

Logistically, getting to Soldier Field from Halas Hall can be an traffic-fueled annoyance, but it’s one the Bears felt was important enough to go ahead and do. Former Bears kickers Robbie Gould and Kevin Butler used to practice kicking at Soldier Field during the week, for what it’s worth. 

The Bears will need Parkey to be better on Sunday night against the Minnesota Vikings, in what could be a close, critical game for control of the NFC North. But Parkey won’t change his mental approach for that night, even if his midweek work is now switched up a bit. 

“Same as last week, same as the week before,” Parkey said. “I just try to go out there and make my kicks.”