With Theo Epstein running Cubs, no one is untouchable

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With Theo Epstein running Cubs, no one is untouchable

Theo Epstein and Ryan Dempster talked by the batting cage before Mondays game at Wrigley Field.

The team president has a rebuilding plan that looks ahead to the next 10 years. The Opening Day starter just turned 35, will be a free agent at seasons end and has no-trade rights.

That creative tension is the story for this Cubs season.

It was 90 degrees at first pitch, with winds gusting 24 mph. The offense finally came alive in an 11-7 victory over the Padres that snapped a 12-game losing streak.

But any one game or even a bad 12-game sample size doesnt really matter in the big picture.

Dempster loves Chicago and has become an authority figure in the clubhouse and a part of the community. But the Cubs are 16-32 and contenders know all about his numbers (2.14 ERA) and makeup.

I have a pretty good feel for where hes coming from, Epstein said. We have an open dialogue. We just chatted about chatting at some point. Theres nothing to talk about right now. I think I know him pretty well.

Long-term, sure, I think the organizations better for having him. Well have to take a realistic look of where we are. And if there are ways to get better, every option has to be on the table.

At the moment, that doesnt mean calling up top prospects Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson. Ex-closer Carlos Marmol, who came off the disabled list, will have to earn his job back but could be showcased.

Catcher Geovany Soto, who recently underwent a minor knee procedure, said hes close to returning, that its not a two-month injury, more like two or three weeks.

This front office isnt sentimental, and prides itself on removing emotion from the equation. No one is untouchable.

Ive always operated under that philosophy, Epstein said. I never understood why there would ever be an untouchable. All youre doing is limiting your opportunity.

That said, there are core pieces that its almost impossible to foresee movement. You have to be completely blown away to even contemplate it. I think everyone knows what were trying to do. Were trying to build a nucleus of talented young players who can form a core of an annual contender.

So if you have a piece like that, the only way youd contemplate ever moving him would be if youd get multiples back of that same caliber, and those deals are hard to make.

From here, you could see a rotation fronted by Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija, and a lineup built around Rizzo and Starlin Castro. Win or lose, the next 114 games will be about identifying more core players.

Were also very open to making moves, general manager Jed Hoyer said. A lot of our conversations are about what we can do to shake things up, what we can do to change the roster a little bit. Well keep looking at those things.

(But) we dont want to get in a situation where were sort of dumping guys off just to make a point or just to change things up.

Epstein and Hoyer have been on the road evaluating players for the draft, and getting to know their scouts better. They have to get the sixth overall pick right on June 4, and then begin restocking the system.

From there, the focus will shift and the Cubs will assess the landscape. Maybe an extra wild card, some injuries or a desperate executive will move the market.

This time of year is not a big trading time, Hoyer said. People are still filling their team out and deciding where they are. Thats why the solutions have to come from within. This isnt an external time of year (and) we need to fight through this.

The Cubs overcame a poor start from Travis Wood and got home runs from Castro, Darwin Barney, Ian Stewart and Alfonso Soriano to beat a bad Padres team (17-33).

Theyre telling themselves that this will all pay off in the end. Its just a question of wholl be around to enjoy it.

Its torture for all of us, Hoyer said. (But) I dont think any of us would ever hesitate for a second knowing better times are ahead. Theres no question in my mind that were going to build a consistent winner here.

This is a really painful bump that were going through right now on the way to get there. My hope (in the) future (is that) were looking back at this as a character-building thing.

Breaking down the Bears' 2016 draft class on 'Draft Central'

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Breaking down the Bears' 2016 draft class on 'Draft Central'

With the 2016 NFL Draft in the books, the 2016 Bears are coming into focus.

Sunday night, CSN broke down the weekend that was — a busy one for the Bears, featuring not just the draft but also the addition of a backup quarterback and the subtraction of veterans Matt Slauson and Antrel Rolle.

So where do the Bears stand? Click on the links below to hear from Chris Boden, Jim Miller, Dave Wannstedt and Hub Arkush as they recap the draft and the rest of the Bears' offseason.

— Draft Central: Initial impressions of Bears' draft class

— Draft Central: Scouting first-round pick Leonard Floyd

— Draft Central: Bears move around in Round 2

— Draft Central: A look at the Bears' post-draft depth chart

— Draft Central: Bears release Matt Slauson, Antrel Rolle

— Draft Central: Bears add Brian Hoyer as Jay Cutler backup

Five things we learned about the Cubs in the first month of 2016

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Five things we learned about the Cubs in the first month of 2016

Addison Russell strolled out of the Cubs locker room wearing a baggy pinstriped suit with a smile plastered across his face.

He paused for a second and looked back to see Kris Bryant in his American flag suit (complete with American flag shoes) and the rest of his teammates and coaches following suit.

Russell smiled wider and continued the march toward the team bus to the airport.

This was only hours after the sophomore shortstop committed the costly error that led to the worst team in baseball (Atlanta Braves) notching a series split with the best team in the game at Wrigley Field.

Forget the loss. Move on.

Yeah, the Cubs are feeling good about themselves right now.

As they should.

The Cubs ended April with the best record in baseball (17-5), living up to the hype they created after a wild offseason and throughout a wacky spring training.

Things would have been so much difficult if the Cubs had not gotten off to a hot start in a city that watched the Bulls crash and burn and miss the playoffs while the Blackhawks were knocked out in the first round.

Imagine how the city and its sports fans would have responded if the red-hot White Sox was the only baseball team looking like a contender 1/6 of the way through the season.

As the Cubs face their toughest test of the season to date with seven straight games against two of the best teams in the league (Pirates, Nationals), let's look back at the five biggest takeaways from the campaign to date:

1. Jake Arrieta has picked up right where he left off.

Everybody wanted to know what Arrieta would do as an encore to follow up his 2015 Cy Young season in which he put up the best second half the game has ever seen.

How about 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA, a 0.78 WHIP and a no-hitter? It's crazy to think Arrieta could be better than he was last season, but he's making it true with each outing. 

At the very least, Arrieta has picked up right where he left off and might well be the best pitcher in the game (though Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale would surely have something to say about that).

2. The pitching staff has carried the Cubs.

Even beyond Arrieta, the Cubs pitching staff as a whole has been fantastic. Only the Washington Nationals have a better team ERA entering play Monday. Cubs pitchers also have a batting average against of under .200, tops in the big leagues.

It helps when Arrieta, Jon Lester and Jason Hammel have combined to allow just 13 earned runs in 94 1/3 innings. John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks haven't been bad, either, as the rotation has recorded 18 quality starts in 23 tries.

The back end of the bullpen has been clicking, too, as Hector Rondon allowed his first run of the season Sunday, while Adam Warren still hasn't given up an earned run in eight innings and Pedro Strop is locked in (2.89 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 13 Ks in 9 1/3 innings).

The Cubs pitching staff has also gotten it done at the plate, driving in eight runs on 10 hits.

"This month was the pitcher," Bryant said. "They were unbelievable and they hit pretty good, too, so they kinda picked themselves up at times. ... The pitchers have carried us the whole month."

3. This team is much improved defensively.

Theo Epstein's front office identified the weaknesses of last year's team that ran into the brick wall that was the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series and one of the main issues was defense — particularly outfield defense.

Gold Glover Jason Heyward's defense has been as good as advertised, with the big free agent acquisition gunning down baserunners and diving all over the outfield.

Dexter Fowler has earned positive grades defensively, too, as the Cubs forced him to play a little deeper in center field.

Bryant has looked solid in left field and at third base, and Ben Zobrist's steady glove at second has been a welcome addition in an infield that already boasts elite defenders in Russell and Anthony Rizzo.

"Defensively, we've caught the ball," Joe Maddon said. "We've played catch well. Everybody's talking about the offense, but primarily, it's been pitching and the defense that's set this whole thing up."

4. This team doesn't wilt in the face of adversity.

The Cubs had remarkably good luck on the injury front in 2015, but it took until only the second inning of the third game in 2016 for the first major blow.

Kyle Schwarber is lost for the season, yet the Cubs had just one letdown game after that news before righting the ship and marching forward without "Fast Hulk" in the lineup.

If somebody predicted the Cubs would be 17-5 in the first month of the season without Schwarber even collecting a hit, they would've been laughed off the internet.

Maddon and his coaching staff have seen just about everything there is to see in this game, and they have a stable of veterans like David Ross, Lester, Lackey and Zobrist who know what it takes to rise above adversity and keep everybody pulling on the same rope.

5. The Cubs haven't reached their peak.

Everybody is talking about a Cubs offense that ended the weekend with the second-most runs scored in baseball.

But the reality is, this lineup really hasn't hit its groove yet, scoring most of their runs with timely hitting and an insanely patient approach that keeps the conga line moving on the basepaths.

Yet Zobrist, Rizzo, Russell, Heyward, Miguel Montero and Jorge Soler are all hitting .250 or below, and Schwarber notched just four at-bats before tragedy struck.

Imagine what this offense will do when everything gets clicking and the weather starts to warm up.

"A lot of us are just getting going," Bryant said. "It'll be fun to see when things are clicking when the pitching's going good and the hitting's going good."

That feeling is mutual around the clubhouse.

"We have some work to do in general," Heyward said. "We're not hitting on all cylinders right now. We're not clicking consistently."

So does that mean the Cubs are expecting months where they finish with a better record than April's 17-5?

"I'd love to just keep doing that every month," Maddon said. "I'd be happy with that. We've played pretty well this entire month. It's hard to knock our guys right now.

"Offensively, defensively, pitching — the baserunning's been really good. To be able to sustain all those components would be great. I think you're gonna see guys actually hit better. A lot of our offense has been just based on some really good at-bats, some timely hitting.

"But just to purely go out there and just literally knock the cover off the ball, we haven't done that yet. So I think there's an offensive push that we're capable of.

"You just look at the numbers in general, and there are guys that are capable of more, numerically speaking. You probably will see more come from the offense."

Preview: Cubs, Pirates do battle Monday night on CSN

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Preview: Cubs, Pirates do battle Monday night on CSN

The Cubs take on the Pirates on Monday night, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies live from Pittsburgh for first pitch at 6 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Today's starting pitching matchup: Jason Hammel (3-0, 0.75 ERA) vs. Gerrit Cole (2-2, 2.78 ERA)

Click here for a game preview to make sure you're ready for the action.

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