Wilken believes Cubs can build the foundation with Epstein-McLeod


Wilken believes Cubs can build the foundation with Epstein-McLeod

MINNEAPOLIS Tim Wilken was driving across Florida last fall when he abruptly cut off a conversation with his new boss.

Gotta go, the Cubs scouting director said into the speaker inside his car, and essentially hung up on Theo Epstein.

A cop pulled over Wilken, whos still not sure why he didnt get a speeding ticket on the way home to Dunedin from Fort Lauderdale.

For a franchise that has tried to erase the myths of black cats and billy goats, maybe this was a sign of good fortune: The player Wilken had just scouted was Albert Almora.

At the time, Almora was training with Team USA for the Pan-Am Games in Colombia. Almora led the 18-and-under national team on a 9-0 run and was named tournament MVP, winning one of his five gold medals in international play.

Almora an 18-year-old outfielder who just graduated from Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens just became the first player drafted by the Epstein administration. Though the No. 6 overall pick is being advised by super-agent Scott Boras and has played up the idea of going to the University of Miami, Cubs officials are quietly confident a deal will get done.

Epstein framed the draft as the most important days of the year for an organization that lacks impact talent.

The president of baseball operations has overseen a merger, hiring Jed Hoyer as general manager and Jason McLeod as the new head of scouting and player development, while inheriting a staff that was signed through 2012 and loyal to Jim Hendry.

It was a little bit of a feeling-out process, (but) all the guys got to speak their peace, Wilken said. You could see the room coming together as a unit. It was good stuff between Theo, Jed and Jason and the holdovers.

Wilken grew up with Hendry, and they played together at Spring Hill College, a Jesuit school in Alabama. But Wilken made his mark during 25 seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, working for Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick and helping build back-to-back World Series winners in 1992 and 1993. The Cubs hope to combine old-school scouting with new-wave thinking.

You couldnt have had much of a better blend, Wilken said. It was like putting together some music.

Wilken who was involved in the Blue Jays signing Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter out of high school believes that both sides share similar philosophies. In the room, the Cubs had always stressed arm action, athletic bodies and repeatable deliveries when analyzing pitchers.

But Wilken admitted that the 2012 draft reached a new level of detail. Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod visited Almoras home in South Florida as part of an extensive background check.

Scouts were given cameras and had to shoot every game they attended, to create a video library inside the new Bloomberg computer system.

The Cubs had obviously broken down film before, but never had this kind of database to bring everything into focus.

It really helped you just put a picture in your mind, Wilken said.

A new collective bargaining agreement forced the Cubs to improvise. Wilken said you used to be able to almost script out the first 15 plays, like Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers, but spending restrictions changed all that.

Last year, chairman Tom Ricketts consulted with Hendry and poured 12 million into a draft class they hoped would be game-changing. As the signing deadline approached, Wilken had no idea his old friend was already fired.

The Cubs are limited to just under 8 million this year, and crossing that limit would lead to severe penalties. Wilken doesnt concern himself with what could have been the draft was a line item that didnt remain steady on the Tribune Co. budget but he does see one big problem with the new labor deal.

Epstein and McLeod liked to overpay football players and get those later-round picks to sign with the Boston Red Sox. Wilken fears baseball is going to lose out on two-sport athletes and the Jeff Samardzijas and Joe Mauers will pursue their NFL ambitions.

Its not going to benefit any club, Wilken said. I dont think its fair to those guys. I think it needs to be reviewed down the road.

Were asking them to come out of their sport and come over to our sport. Weve closed off one side of the avenue. Im kind of worried for the industry.

The Cubs are looking for any advantage they can get. Wilken knows the odds, that of the 42 players they just drafted, it would be a major success if three or four guys are contributors to contending teams in 2016 or 2017.

You get the sense that Wilken would like to stick around that long, even though he didnt get a new contract from Ricketts last September, like vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita did before the Epstein hire.

Wilken who has sat with Ricketts in Boise, Idaho, scouting the minor-league system appreciates the support from ownership and said Epsteins crew has been first class.

McLeod who drafted Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury for the Red Sox has said that earlier in his career hed make a point to get a drink with Wilken at the winter meetings to learn more about the business. McLeod also doesnt want to spend 200 nights a year in Marriott hotels across the country.

Both egos were checked at the door, Wilken said. Were trying to bring in the players (to) bring (a) World Series here.

NFL Power Rankings Week 8: Jags, Eagles, Bears all see stock fall

USA Today

NFL Power Rankings Week 8: Jags, Eagles, Bears all see stock fall

Take a look over the NFC landscape and try to find me a team that can compete with the Rams. 

Packers? Held back by Rodgers' knee and Rodgers' coach. Saints? Might not even win their own division. Washington? Does Alex Smith really scare anyone in the playoffs? 

The Rams have one of the easier paths to the Championship Round/Super Bowl that we've seen in some time. Will it likely stay that way? Probably not. But there's a difference between parity and mediocrity and right now the NFC is toeing the line HARD. 

Outside the NFC's "elite", how did your team do this week? 

You can take a look here and see where they landed. 

Shaquille Harrison could improve the efficiency of Bulls bottom five defense

Shaquille Harrison could improve the efficiency of Bulls bottom five defense

The Phoenix Suns released guard Shaquille Harrison last week, and although it is not a move that will send shockwaves through the league, the Bulls picking up Harrison could be the exact type of move to help solve what ails them.

At 6-foot, 4-inches and with a long wingspan, Harrison would step in and likely be at least the second-best perimeter defender on the team behind Kris Dunn. And he is the type of player, when combined with a talent like Wendell Carter Jr. and/or Dunn, could help form the type of lineup that could have a transformative effect on the overall team defense.

Last season Harrison had a defensive rating of 109, this despite the fact that the Sun—as a team—had a defensive rating of 113.51, over four points worse than when Harrison was on the floor.

His best skill is his ability to “get skinny” around a screener, meaning that on defense, Harrison is adept at angling his body to get around players trying to screen him off his man:

The Bulls need more players who show Harrison’s effort level when navigating screens on defense, not just because it will make life easier on their rim protectors, but because they also need to make sure they continue adding players who lead by example on that end of the floor. A team as young as the Bulls needs to collect young talent who pride themselves on defense, and Harrison fits the part.

When it comes to offense, Harrison doesn’t have the most impressive profile, but his play on that end of the floor is similar to former Bull David Nwaba. Harrison is not even an average 3-point shooter  (23.1 percent from 3-point range), but he makes up for it in other ways.

His rebounding is an area of strength, and fitting in with his preference to bring physicality to his matchup, he is adept at getting to the free throw line. Last year Harrison’s 30.6 percent free throw attempt rate would’ve been a top-five mark on the Bulls. But his low usage rate (18 percent) will likely be lower in Chicago, so the free throw numbers may fall. But with so many score-first players on the roster, Harrison will still be able to crash the glass against the many guards who forget to box out their man.

Offensive rebounding will be less of a focus for a Bulls team that wants to preach getting back on transition defense, but Harrison gives Fred Hoiberg a special player that can do both. Harrison will run back on defense to help create the “shell” that the best teams create to cut off easy forays to the rim, and then when his team gets the ball back and is on the fastbreak, he brings value as the “trailer” (trailing man on a fastbreak) even without shooting ability:

This signing could end up being a big one for the Bulls, however small it may seem now.

Around the league, more and more teams are starting to invest resources in multiple ball-handler offenses that negate the differences between point guard and shooting guard, making versatile back court defenders a must.

This will be evident when the Bulls take on the Dallas Mavericks in game No. 3 of the regular season, as Rick Carlisle's Mavericks feature Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic in an explosive offense that doesn't have a defined "lead" guard. The Bulls will continue to attempt to curtail offense with a high-scoring back court duo when they take on the Charlotte Hornets in a back-to-back on October 26 and 27. If Harrison is worked into the rotation by then, expect to see Harrison and Dunn on the floor together to match up with Doncic and Smith respectively, but have the flexibility to switch defensive assignments on the fly. If Chicago's perimeter defense starts to offer significantly more resistance, it will allow quicker improvement from Carter and the rest of the Bulls bigs on the interior.

With Zach LaVine currently in the top-five in the NBA in points per game, Dunn returning and Lauri Markkanen getting healthy, the Bulls front office is slowly approaching the point where their team has enough players who are considered possible focal points of an offense.

To become a championship contender, you need to have that one player who is unequivocally a superstar capable of a heavy workload, and only time will tell if the Bulls already have that player or need to acquire him. But the other important factor in building a championship roster is having the elite-level role players who do the little things that make life easier for their teammates in all phases of the game, and Shaq Harrison is excellent prospect who fits that exact mold.