The critics dont bother Aramis Ramirez

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The critics dont bother Aramis Ramirez

PHOENIX Aramis Ramirez doesnt know how he will be received when he steps into the box at Wrigley Field on April 9 wearing a Milwaukee Brewers uniform. He doesnt really care either.

I have no clue, Ramirez said Saturday. Thats part of baseball. Ive been booed before when I left Pittsburgh. Its been nine years and every time I go back I still get booed. I dont know how theyre going to take it. I dont really worry about it. I cant control that stuff.

Ramirez never showed much emotion, which is why it was so surprising that he nearly fought Carlos Silva the last time the Cubs drove over to Maryvale Baseball Park. It was a bad image to project, a team unraveling after the first inning of the fourth game in spring training.

You certainly cant draw a direct line to Mike Quade and Jim Hendry getting fired.

But in the 12 months since that dugout altercation, you can look back and think the cracks were beginning to show for a first-year manager and the long-time general manager, who was close with Ramirez. The mix wasnt quite right for a team that would finish in fifth place again.

New president Theo Epstein made it clear to Ramirez agent last fall that the Cubs planned to go young and werent interested in a 16 million mutual option for 2012, or renegotiating a new deal. So Ramirez got his money from the Brewers, a three-year 36 million insurance policy against losing Prince Fielder.

In the past, Ramirez has said that you cant rebuild in big market, that you need a name product to fill 40,000 seats every game. How long will Cubs fans really stay patient with Epstein?

Thats a good question, Ramirez said. Im not a fan. Im a player. I dont know. Its going to take time, hopefully sooner than later. Hes been successful before in Boston. Im sure hes got a good plan. Hes got something working right now.

For Ramirez, it was always just business. He was their third baseman for eight consecutive Opening Days beginning in 2004; the Cubs had seven different ones in the eight years before that. Ian Stewart will be there April 5.

How come Ramirez never really connected with the fans the way, say, Tony Campana did as a rookie extra outfielder last season?

Because Im slow, man, they like the fast guys, Ramirez said with a smile. No, I dont know. I cant really point at anything. I just tried to do my job, and I think for the most part I did it. Thats all you can ask from a player. I cant really answer that question.

Ramirez hit 239 homers for the Cubs which ranks sixth all-time in franchise history and drove in more than 800 runs during his time on the North Side. He played in the Bartman game in 2003 and was a force on teams that won back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008.

The Ramirez critics questioned his hustle, desire and defense. The loudest may have been television analyst Bob Brenly, who managed the Arizona Diamondbacks to a World Series title in 2001 and is appreciated by viewers for his candor.

I dont care, Ramirez said. Hes a broadcaster. He should just worry about calling the game. Hes not a coach. Hes not a manager. He should just call the game. The coaches, the managers, the GMs they should take care of the other stuff.

There has been a lot of talk about changing the culture at Wrigley Field. Ramirez will turn 34 this summer and doesnt have time for that. He wants to win a ring.

The only difference is these guys won 96 games last year, Ramirez said. Its different because theyre ready to win now. Theos got different plans. They want to go young. Here, theyre going in a different direction.

Scouting report: What the Bulls are getting in newly acquired Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn

Scouting report: What the Bulls are getting in newly acquired Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn

The Bulls have entered their rebuilding phase, dealing Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick, which became Arizona power forward Lauri Markkanen. Time will tell what Markkanen becomes as a stretch forward/center but he certainly was worthy of the selection. LaVine and Dunn had been with the Timberwolves since they were drafted, and give the Bulls two versatile options in a backcourt that will look far different than it did a year ago.

Here’s what the Bulls are getting in the two former Timberwolves guards:

LaVine, a two-time NBA Dunk Contest champion, was having a career year before he suffered a torn ACL on Feb. 3. Playing a bigger role in his second season under Thibodeau, LaVine averaged 18.9 points on 46 percent shooting and shot a respectable 39 percent from deep on 6.6 attempts per game, 16th most in the NBA.

LaVine is known for him thunderous dunks, but that athleticism allowed him to shoot nearly 64 percent at the rim last year, per basketball-reference. He’s a scorer first and foremost, topping 25 or more point 10 different times in those 47 games. He went for 40 points in a late December loss to the Kings. He also had five or more assists on eight different occasions, so he’s able to distribute the ball as well. He’s a true combo guard who should finally give Fred Hoiberg some backcourt flexibility.

The Bulls got a firsthand look at LaVine’s skill set in December when he went for 24 points, six rebounds and six assists in a win over the Bulls at the United Center. He shot 10-for-18 and made a few key shots over Dwyane Wade late to seal the game. It was part of a stellar 16-game stretch between November 23 and December 23 when LaVine averaged 23.6 points and 3.5 assists.

He flirted with 50/40/90, shooting 49 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep and 88 percent from the line. He did all this, of course, playing behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. While that gave LaVine more one-on-one situations as defenses dealt with his two budding star teammates, shots were hard to come by until LaVine asserted himself and worked him into a featured role in the offense.

LaVine had ACL surgery on February 14 and spoke about his recovery in late May, saying “everything is going well.” LaVine said at that time he was only allowed to run on an anti-gravity treadmill, and there’s still no timetable for his return to the court. A source told Insider Vincent Goodwill LaVine is “training softly.”

Dunn has plenty of work to do to show he can compete at the next level. Though he only played one season, his rookie campaign under Thibodeau was one to forget. The No. 5 pick in the draft averaged 3.8 points and 2.4 assists in 17.1 minutes per game. He played in 78 games behind Ricky Rubio, although he did lose some playing time to Tyus Jones late in the season.

Dunn’s shooting is his biggest weakness. In terms of true shooting percentage, which takes into account 3-point shots and free throws, Dunn was second-to-last in the NBA last year with a 43.2 percent mark. He shot just 38 percent from the floor, 29 percent from beyond the arc and 61 percent at the free-throw line.

For his season-long struggles he did look good in the second half of the year. After the All-Star break he improved his percentages to 40.4/33.3/77.8 and had a handful of impressive games. He had 11 points and seven assists against the Lakers and followed it the next night with a career-best 17 points against the Blazers. In the season finale he handed out 16 assists to go with 10 points, the first double-double of his career.

Where it’s clear he excels is taking care of the ball. His 1.1 turnovers were seventh fewest among point guard who averaged at least Dunn’s 17 minutes per game. He’s ready to facilitate, but he’ll need to score at a higher and more efficient clip to earn playing time.

Where both fit into the Bulls is a question for now. The Bulls have a decision to make with Rajon Rondo and whether to pick up his team option for next season. The Bulls traded for both Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne in the last calendar year, and Isaiah Canaan is under contract for another year. On the wing, LaVine will replace Butler and get as much run as he can handle. With only Denzel Valentine and Anthony Morrow available at shooting guard, LaVine is in line for a big role from Day 1. He’s also in the last year of his rookie contract so the Bulls will be looking to extend him sooner than later.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”