What we learned about the Cubs in April

750256.png

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.

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott wasn’t exactly hunting for his first shot, but the first time he touched the ball in an NBA game in nearly a month wasn’t the optimal situation for him to let one fly.

It wasn’t in transition where he runs to an opening behind the 3-point line, nor was it a drive-and-kick situation where the help defense collapsed and left him open. It was a regular, simple, pass to the perimeter and McDermott’s defender was in reasonable proximity with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

He launched and the crowd soon roared its approval as his sweet jumper was sorely missed by the Bulls bench brigade—and moments later when he ran the floor for a fearless layup that caused Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout, McDermott showed he missed the United Center crowd too, calling for more noise on his way to the bench.

“Anytime you have a guy like Doug, he comes back and makes his first 3, that’s hard to do,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He stepped up with confidence on that first shot. I’m sure he had a lot of nerves getting back out there.”

Missing 12 games and suffering two concussions, McDermott looked right at home in 25 minutes of run Thursday as the Bulls were able to rely on their reserves in some form in their 95-91 win over the previously perfect road warriors known as the Spurs.

“We defended and kept them off the foul line,” McDermott said. “Coach (Jim) Boylen was with them, so we feel we know them and I think all this time they were missing my defense.”

[SHOP: Get your Bulls gear right here]

The last statement was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the Bulls’ bench production was certainly missing in action while he was out with the concussion protocol. So much so that his return prompted the Bulls’ coaching staff to call out the reserves in the morning shootaround, demanding more.

“It’s definitely Dwyane (Wade) and Jimmy (Butler) and (Rajon) Rondo (but) the coaching staff kinda called out our bench like, we gotta have you tonight, bench,” McDermott said. “We took that to heart, we were really locked in.”

Seemingly his presence aided the Bulls’ spirits and production, as the Bulls’ bench had the least effective scoring bench in the NBA since Nov. 13, the day after McDermott hit the unforgiving floor against the Wizards for his second concussion this season.

Their net rating ranks ahead of only the Wizards, Mavericks and Nets, who are a combined 17-45 this season. Their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account 3-pointers, is worst in the league in that span (42.3 percent).

When McDermott was healthy for that smaller sample size, the Bulls’ bench ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, seventh in net rating, and fifth in efficient field goal percentage. Whether McDermott – and his absence – was directly related to those numbers, it’s clear the Bulls are better when they have their best reserve – and only true floor spacers on the second unit – on the court.

“We’re all professionals and we want to help the guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us the leads,” McDermott said. “Tonight we did a great job of sustaining it. We take it personal when teams come back on us.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls]

Nikola Mirotic was four of eight from the field, and Cristiano Felicio seems to be back in Fred Hoiberg’s good graces as he’s carved out a rotation spot for himself with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

It seems as if Hoiberg will stick with this rotation of players, at least for a little while until Michael Carter-Williams returns from his injuries. If McDermott is the mark of the Bulls’ bench going from bottom feeder to adequate, it should show this month.

“When he’s out there on the floor and we get him coming off screens, it forces the defense to shift as another person they need to be aware of,” Hoiberg said. “It opens up driving lanes for our guys. It was great to have Doug back with us.”

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

Here are some of the top Chicago sports stories from

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Rangers tonight on CSN

Bulls erase recent struggles, hand Spurs first road loss of season

Joe Maddon breaks down Wade Davis vs. Aroldis Chapman as Cubs ramp up for another World Series run

Rick Hahn: White Sox 'still thoroughly, deeply engaged' in trade talks as meetings close

Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook out vs. Rangers

Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls

Bears, Lions have been totally different teams in fourth quarters

Report: Dexter Fowler closing in on deal with Cardinals

Blackhawks improve faceoffs in Jonathan Toews’ absence

Cubs unveil championship Trophy Tour