Chicago White Sox

Blackhawks free agency plan remains a mystery

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Blackhawks free agency plan remains a mystery

Thursdays NHL announcement that the salary cap is -- at least temporarily -- going up about 6 million dollars to 70.2 million leaves the Blackhawks with roughly 8 million to spend when free agency begins Sunday at 11 a.m., if Stan Bowman so chooses.

He can exceed it for the time being and worry about shaving money off with trades as the offseason progresses. The other concerns involve what that cap number will be once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, and how teams will react once the initial wave of free agency is over as labor negotiations get underway. Its anyones guess, but most surmise if the cap does go back down, it wouldnt be a significant amount for this season in the event talks drag into mid-September and beyond.

We heard rumors heading into last weekends draft about the availability of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador -- and their combined 6.25 million cap hit. Something could still happen with them or anyone else on what is a full roster the vice president and general manager can deal from, along with a fully loaded system of prospects. So, the start of free agency may give a more clear indication on how much movement there will be for the club the rest of the summer.

As we check around the league at this new cap number, the Hawks have the second-least amount to spend, slightly less than San Jose. Boston is currently tapped-out. Elsewhere around the West, Los Angeles has just below 12 million it can spend, Calgary about 13.5 million and Vancouver 14.5 million. Everyone else in the conference has even more.

Dennis Widemans contract with Calgary was great news for the defenseman likely to get the second-richest contract from free agency. The Flames signed Wideman for an average of 5.5 million, a significant bump from the 3.9 million he made for a Washington team for which he provided 11 goals -- two shy of his career-high.

Florida will allow Jason Garrison on the market, and likely lose him after the 27-year-old with the booming shot scored nine of his 16 goals on the power play. Thats certainly a Hawks need in their quest to improve that unit, but he might get 6 million or more now for a team believing he can consistently duplicate those numbers after doing it once, getting set up by Brian Campbell. Another veteran blueliner with a Stanley Cup ring went off the market when Nashville re-signed Hal Gill Thursday.

It remains unclear how much interest Bowman has in those types of defensemen, and how far its shrunk his pool of options, if at all. The current roster composition, and allowing himself some salary cap wiggle room, would seem to indicate trades would have to be made in order to create change. But in recent interviews, hes spoken more about growth from within from players on that roster.

Improvement from Corey Crawford. Improvement on special teams. Perhaps counting on the next step taken from home-grown products like Dylan Olsen, Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy, Bryan Bickell, Jimmy Hayes and perhaps Brandon Saad all factor into Bowman's thinking. But no GM reveals his hand through the media. Theres also plenty of time to make any moves he may want to, at the right price, and with the right return. Blind change just for the sake of change often doesnt work out.

Lets say Hjalmarsson is dealt. For all the criticisms he has received in the wake of his post-Cup, four-year contract, one element he provides that would be missing is his shot-blocking an area where many feel the Hawks can improve. While Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya are also among the league leaders in that category others would need to pick up that slack, or the Hawks would ideally get a player or two to fill that void. And it wasnt necessarily the numbers, but the timing, and whos doing it.

There could be some sacrifice from forwards out front. And while you can find just one member of the Coyotes on the first page of blocked shots leaders from last season they were suffocating their share of shots in the first-round playoff series. The same goes for other successful playoff teams this spring like the Rangers, Capitals and Devils. Thats some of the sacrifice Joel Quenneville seemed to allude to when he spoke with reporters last Friday in Pittsburgh.

When I asked Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland about their Coach Q's comment about needing greater competitiveness at a golf outing Monday, they didnt disagree.

Listening to an interview with Kings GM Dean Lombardi the other day, hes already going with the little bit of improvement from within line when asked about roster changes and his team's chances of repeating. It might be easier with Jonathan Quick, but its also more difficult after just reaching the top of the mountain. Just ask the Hawks from two years ago. Im thinking that will be a tough sell in L.A. next season as we head into a 15th year without a repeat champ.

Quenneville also spoke of the fine line between teams throughout the league these days, especially down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs. Think about it: The Hawks led the NHL in mid-January. The first five games of their playoff series went into overtime despite inconsistent goaltending and poor special teams.

But well get a better idea, starting Sunday morning, about how much the Hawks decision-makers feel the need for change, heading into a crucial and perhaps crossroads year for the organization.

Avisail Garcia's 'big head' isn't getting in the way of defensive improvements

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USA TODAY

Avisail Garcia's 'big head' isn't getting in the way of defensive improvements

Avisail Garcia's "big head" almost cost the White Sox on Friday night. At least, that's Reynaldo Lopez's humorous theory. 

With the game on the line and the Royals' tying run dashing for the plate, Garcia slipped a bit before making a clutch recovery to nail Whit Merrifield. The craziness continued after the tag as Narvaez caught Lorenzo Cain drifting off first base to seal a win. 

"I was watching the game on the TV here," Lopez said, "and then when I saw the hit from Cain, and I saw that Avi fell down because he has a big head, I was concerned but at the same time I saw that his throw, he has a good arm and he made a very good throw." 

Just your average 9-2-4-6 double play to end a game on the South Side, right? 

"Obviously, when he slipped we took a little gasp," Renteria said. "But we were talking about his body control to be able to maintain himself enough to get up and make the throw that he did. Unbelievable. It's pretty exciting finish to a ballgame that kind of got a little ugly early on."

Ugly is an apt way to describe the first few innings. Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada both made errors in the Royals' six-run third inning, and Lopez capped it off with a wild pitch that allowed Eric Hosmer to score. But it went from an eyesore loss to an overzealous "we could make noise in 2019" rebuild win from there, and Garcia's defense -- of all things -- played a significant role. 

Garcia's outfield assist in the ninth was his second of the game. The first, an absolute strike to cut down Alex Gordon in the sixth, didn't involve a slip, though. 

And while much has been made of Garcia's breakout year with the bat, he believes his defense is hugely improved, too. 

"I think 100 percent," he said. "I just try to get better every day with hitting and defense. That’s baseball so get better in everything."

He has 12 outfield assists on the season, up from five a year ago. And despite his overall fielding percentage being down, his strong arm may give him a stronger defensive reputation. 

"Since last year, he's always had an excellent arm," Renteria said. "I think his accuracy is something to be pointed out too because as off balance as he was, he's made some throws to the plate that have been really spot on."

Renteria attributes Garcia's accuracy to the outfielder putting in extra time with Daryl Boston. 

"(Boston) has those guys throwing, and none of you guys are out there watching them work, but they'll throw quite a bit to the bases, especially second base," Renteria said. "They'll get deep and they'll work on doing that, so that's just a part of their routine."

The evolution of Avi carries on. 

Sprinting toward October, Cubs close in on another division title

Sprinting toward October, Cubs close in on another division title

MILWAUKEE – “Yeah, that really killed us, that sweep at Wrigley,” John Lackey said sarcastically late Friday night, dismissing a question about what’s happened to the Cubs since the Milwaukee Brewers made their statement against the defending World Series champs two weekends ago. “Come on, dude, it’s 162 games. Things happen.”

The Cubs are 9-1 since then, but Lackey was in no mood to talk about this finishing kick in the National League Central race, probably because manager Joe Maddon gave him the quick hook in a Big Boy Game, pulling him with a runner on and no outs in the fifth inning. But that’s what’s happening here, the Cubs sprinting away from the Brewers and peaking at the right time.

The Brewers are gasping for air after these pulsating back-to-back nights at Miller Park, the Cubs again coming from behind to win in 10 innings and close in on their second straight division title and third playoff appearance in a row, something this franchise hasn’t done since the run capped by the 1908 World Series title repeat.

After a hard-earned 5-4 win, the Cubs knocked the Brewers back to third place and chopped the magic number to eliminate the St. Louis Cardinals down to five, meaning the clinch party could be in Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse next week.

“We played fine that series, actually,” Lackey said, referencing three games where the Cubs lost 2-0, 15-2 and 3-1, allowing the Brewers and Cardinals within two games of first place. “S---, you can lose in this league and still play good. That’s why it’s the big leagues.”

Actually, it looks like the Cubs responded to the challenge from an upstart team, the crowd of 40,116 and a playoff environment.

“It’s been amazing,” Carl Edwards Jr. said. “It actually felt like last year’s World Series when I came in the 10th inning.”

Edwards notched the last five outs this time – with All-Star closer Wade Davis unavailable because he did the same thing the night before – part of a group effort that included a guy whose right elbow hadn’t allowed him to pitch since Sept. 8 (Hector Rondon) and a lefty swingman who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning three days ago against the Tampa Bay Rays (Mike Montgomery).

Lackey’s response when asked about the bullpen’s performance – three runs allowed in 11 innings – halfway through a four-game showdown: “They’ve been asked to do a lot…and they’ve really stepped up and done a great job.”

“In order to win, you’re going to need contributions from non-All-Star players at times,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “You’re going to have to get contributions from players stepping up because of someone else’s bad performance or someone else’s injury.

“You want your best players to play best in these situations. But ultimately that won’t always happen. And when that doesn’t happen, you’re going to need some contributions from other guys.”

That’s been crucial for the 2017 Cubs. The game-winning run scored when Tommy La Stella – the pinch-hitter who had been dealing with a groin injury recently and personal issues that led him to walk away from the organization last summer – drew a bases-loaded walk against All-Star closer Corey Knebel.

If you want to see a grinding approach for October, just look at Jon Jay’s 15-pitch at-bat against Milwaukee starter Brandon Woodruff in the fifth inning, which led to a leadoff single, Ben Zobrist’s two-run single up the middle and a 4-3 lead after Lackey’s slow start.

Yeah, the Cubs look locked in now.

“I’m so proud of the way our guys (respond),” Maddon said. “They get hit a little bit, maybe something to the solar plexus, but we still keep going.”