What does Soler signing do to Cubs' system?

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What does Soler signing do to Cubs' system?

Now that the Cubs have signed Jorge Soler, things are about to change for the franchise, right?

Well, not so fast, but it was definitely a step in the right direction. Just ask Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, who tweeted Monday: "Cubs system is getting better. Throw in potential returns for Dempster, Garza and a big pick in 2013 and it could be a HUGE step forward."

Talk about unbridled optimism for Cubs fans, eh? The big-league club may be on pace to lose a franchise record of games, but the future gets brighter seemingly every day.

Last week, the Cubs selected high school outfielder Albert Almora with the sixth overall pick in the MLB Draft, followed by a slew of pitchers.

In January, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer traded Andrew Cashner for slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who has done nothing but mash in Triple-A since.

And then of course there was 2011 first-round draft pick Javier Baez, a pure hitter out of high school.

So where does Soler fit into all this?

"You could make a very good case that he's No. 1," Jim Callis of Baseball America said on WGN Radio Monday night. "You're talking about a 20-year old kid. To me, it'd be him and Baez. I like Almora a lot. Soler and Baez have a little bit more offensive upside than Almora. I think Almora is a better all-around player, but Soler and Baez are more explosive.

"You're talking about two guys who can do a ton of damage in the middle of the lineup. Soler's got great bat speed. You're looking at at least plus power and a solid runner. He just really fits that right-field profile. I would probably go Soler. I think Baez is going to wind up moving to third. It's Soler-Baez or Baez-Soler for me."

Baez, 19, was recently promoted to Low-A Peoria and carries a .277.370.468 line with five steals in 13 games.

With Almora, Rizzo, Baez and Soler in tow, joining Starlin Castro, Brett Jackson and Junior Lake, diehard Cubs fans like David Kaplan have something to get excited about.

On CTL Monday, Kap put together a graphic that showed what the Cubs' lineup could look like on Opening Day in 2015:

1. Brett Jackson LF
2. Starlin Castro SS
3. Albert Almora CF
4. Anthony Rizzo 1B
5. Jorge Soler RF
6. Javier Baez 3B
7. Junior Lake 2B
8. Steve Clevenger C
9. Jeff Samardzija P

"I can very much see that scenario," Callis said of Kap's projected 2015 lineup. "I think that's realistic. That's what the Cubs are building toward. The good news, too, is when I look long-term at this division, there's not a team that stands out.

"You look at the Rangers, where they have a great major-league team and a great farm system. Or the AL East where you have all these financial power houses and you have the Rays and you have the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays might have the best farm system in the game if the Rangers don't.

"There's nobody in the NL Central where I look at and say 'wow, that team's going to be tough to beat in three years.' Cubs fans are going to have to take their lumps for the next couple of years, but when you look long-term in that division, there's no one positioned to just ride roughshod over everybody else for the next five or 10 years."

So the offense looks pretty dang good. Again, if everybody fulfills their potential and sticks with the team.

But what about the pitching? Apart from Jeff Samardzija and Matt Garza (who may very well wind up involved in a trade), the Cubs aren't sure what they have in the way of pitching prospects. But they set out to try to correct that problem in last week's draft.

"Almora got the bulk of the attention in this year's draft as the sixth overall pick, but the Cubs came back and got pitchers with the next six or seven picks," Callis said. "Supplemental pick Pierce Johnson is a guy who probably could have gone in the first round if he hadn't had a little forearm stiffness that cost him a couple weeks. That's a first-round talent.

"Supplemental pick Paul Blackburn is a good high school pitcher from California who's polished. Second-round pick Duane Underwood has a tremendous fastball. They have some guys there. The question is going to be what else the system can produce. Trey McNutt is a good arm, but probably more of a reliever than a starter in the long term. Dillon Maples -- we really haven't seen a whole lot of since he got 2.5 million. That's gonna be the focus now is finding some pitching to go with all this offensive talent."

Jay Cutler remaining Bears starter not assured when he returns from thumb injury

Jay Cutler remaining Bears starter not assured when he returns from thumb injury

Lovie Smith was clear: “Rex is our quarterback.”

Phil Emery was clear: Jay Cutler is an “elite” quarterback.

John Fox isn’t so clear: When Jay Cutler is cleared to return from his thumb injury, Cutler is not automatically still the Bears starting quarterback.

"I don't think there are any givens and that's not an indictment on anybody,” Fox said on Monday. “This is a day-to-day, week-to-week, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league and so we’re just trying to get the best 11 guys out there regardless of the position to where we can play a full 60 minutes and get a victory.”

Tough love is arguably the most effective management style with Cutler. Unlike the contracts and praise heaped on Cutler by prior administrations, current coaches and the organization withheld judgment on him after taking over in 2015. Cutler, who typically played worse after getting contract extensions and gaudy compliments, responded with the best season of his career.

Cutler watched from the sidelines as the Bears were beaten 31-17 by the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday behind Brian Hoyer, who was able to give the Bears some production in the second half for the first time this year, albeit only after the Bears were down 24-3.

“I thought [Hoyer] made good decisions,” Fox said, then qualified, “Not all of them. I think the very first play of the game didn’t go quite as smooth as we’d like. I thought he did some good things. I thought the pass-pro and some of those things helped the situation. I think we did have some explosive runs — we had more explosive plays in this game than we did in the prior two. We’ll evaluate that as we move forward and prepare for Detroit.”

The ultimate question is not whether Brian Hoyer is as good as Jay Cutler.

The evaluation will be whether Hoyer had success because the pass protection and run game worked better, or the bigger question, did those phases of the offense work better because of Hoyer. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains has stated that a primary job of a quarterback is to get the other 10 players on the huddle to do theirs well. If the evaluation process, which could include another game next Sunday when the Detroit Lions come to Soldier Field, points to the offense functioning better for Hoyer, the Bears will have a major decision to make.

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Cutler has been benched because of performance only once in Chicago, late in 2014, for one game. He started the following week because Jimmy Clausen sustained a concussion.

Some perspectives on Bears QB switches

Back in 2005, while over at a social event during Super Bowl week in Detroit, a prominent member of the Bears’ defense vented on a decision that in his opinion cost the Bears their season. That decision was to go back to Rex Grossman as quarterback from Kyle Orton, who had been the quintessential game manager as a fourth-round rookie filling in while Grossman worked back from a broken ankle suffered in preseason.

“We’d’ve been here [in the Super Bowl] if we’d’a stayed with Kyle,” the Pro Bowl defender said.

That didn’t happen in the “Rex is our quarterback” phase of Smith’s tenure.

Josh McCown by his own assessment was not as good a player as Cutler in 2013 when the best-chance-to-win decision had to be made between those two. Coaches wanted to stay with McCown, the GM insisted on Cutler; the team stayed on course with Cutler, accelerated that direction actually, letting McCown leave for Tampa Bay and giving Cutler the “Jay is our quarterback” max contract.

But while Smith was invested in Grossman, who did get the Bears to the Super Bowl the next year, and Phil Emery invested in Cutler, who has won just one playoff game in his seven Bears seasons, coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace have not gone all-in on quarterbacks they inherited. They stayed with Cutler without any real alternative last year, and Fox admitted that Cutler was perhaps one of the biggest positive surprises coming out of last season, when then-coordinator Adam Gase was the loudest voice in the room on that quarterback decision and the organization stayed with the quarterback to whom millions were guaranteed.

Now there is an alternative, who like McCown was vis’a’vis Cutler, is not Cutler’s football equal physically (“Have you seen him throw?” McCown answered one reporter asking what Cutler did that he, McCown, couldn’t).

Whether the Bears take that alternative will play out in practice and possibly a game over the next seven days.

Blackhawks: Abbott happy to be back after season in Sweden

Blackhawks: Abbott happy to be back after season in Sweden

Spencer Abbott enjoyed his short stint in Rockford, which came after he was acquired by the Blackhawks in February 2015. At the time, he thought staying here was his most likely plan.

Then he got an offer Frölunda in Sweden.

“I thought, ‘why not give it a shot? Maybe it’ll be a good experience and bring it back with me,’” said Abbott on Monday. “It was worth it, for sure. I have no regrets.”

Abbott, who’s back with the Blackhawks, had never been to Europe prior to getting that Frölunda offer. But his first trip across the pond was a good one as Abbott was part of Frölunda’s run to its Swedish and Champions hockey league titles. Abbott had 14 goals and 21 assists in 51 regular-season games. Abbott got plenty out of the games, but not nearly as much as he did in the team’s training camp.

“The first month and a half you’re over there, you’re there from 8 [a.m.] to 4 [p.m.] every day. I think over here there’s a rule against being here for more than 3-4 hours, but not over there. It’s like a 9-5 job for a month and a half, a lot of working out, a lot of bike riding. So for me, that was good because I had never been in that kind of shape before,” said Abbott, who added he’s trying to incorporate some of that into his routine here. “Training camps here are hard but they’re just different over there. There’s a lot of ice, bigger ice [overseas], so they really condition you. So my conditioning may be a bit better.”

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As much as Abbott loved his time in Sweden, he ultimately wanted to be back in the NHL. So when the Blackhawks offered him a one-year deal, he jumped at it. He’s gotten off to a good start this training camp, scoring a few goals in the team’s early scrimmages.

“I wasn’t sure how it would play out, to be honest. I’m 28 and pretty early in the summer they were showing interest,” Abbott said. “This is one for the places I really wanted to come, because I did l really like the organization when I was here for that brief period of time. Now I get the full effect as long as they’ll have me. It’s such a good organization.”

Abbott probably could have kept playing overseas but he wanted another chance in the NHL. He’s happy it’s once again coming in the Blackhawks’ organization.

“It’s overwhelming. There are so many places to play hockey nowadays in Europe. There are tons of leagues over there. But it didn’t interest me,” he said. “I wanted to come back and give it one more shot.”