Cubs clearing the path for Anthony Rizzo

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Cubs clearing the path for Anthony Rizzo

Theo Epstein has scouted Anthony Rizzo in person several times this season, and watched just about every one of his at-bats at Triple-A Iowa on video.

Like every prospect in the Cubs system, Rizzo received an individual player plan for improvement this season, and almost all of Epsteins boxes are checked.

The Cubs sent another clear signal that Rizzo is coming soon by moving first baseman Bryan LaHair to right field for Mondays 12-3 win over the White Sox.

What you saw at U.S. Cellular Field Alfonso Soriano in left, David DeJesus in center and LaHair in right is what it should look like once Rizzos stationed at first base.

Rizzo is hitting .364 with 23 homers and 59 RBI in 63 games at Iowa, where hes drawn rave reviews for his potential Gold Glove defense and professional approach.

He was destroying down there, said catcher Geovany Soto, who just got back from a rehab assignment with Iowa. Hes got some pop. Hes doing it right. Hes coming on pretty good.

Rizzo, 22, was drafted by the Boston Red Sox, traded to the San Diego Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal and flipped to the Cubs last winter in the Andrew Cashner trade.

The three executives in charge at Clark and Addison Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod were involved in all three deals and are banking on Rizzo being a foundation piece. Theyve so far resisted bringing up Rizzo to give the team a jolt.

You have to look at what happened last year, Epstein said. He put up great numbers and then was rushed to the big leagues and struggled. So its important to always put players in a position to succeed.

The Cubs believe Rizzo learned from his experience last season in San Diego, where he hit .141 with 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats. They say lowering his hands has been a key mechanical adjustment to his swing.

The minor leagues arent just some holding pattern, Epstein said. Its a place for a lot of teaching and learning. Its where adjustments are made, not only fundamentally a players swing (or) physically getting stronger, learning how to stay healthy, learning their body. But (its) also mentally, your routine that you develop to get you through tough days.

His approach has always been pretty solid. I think he got into some bad habits with his swing last year when he was trying to do too much at the big-league level.

Hes someone who kind of toys with his hand position quite a bit. Hes got a little bit of rhythm with his setup. (Now) hes ready to hit the fastball and adjusting well on off-speed pitches. Hes an aggressive hitter. Hes not someone whos overly selective at the plate, but hes got a real plan. Its worked for him so far.

LaHair began the day tied for the lead in homers among National League first basemen, and then launched his 13th shot 404 feet beyond the wall in right-center field.

That morning, LaHair received a phone call from manager Dale Sveum letting him know that hed be in the outfield that night. There is less ground to cover at U.S. Cellular Field, but the winds were gusting up to 41 mph at first pitch.

LaHair passed his first test by making a nice running catch onto the warning track in the first inning to rob Gordon Beckham.

Ive played in the outfield quite a bit throughout my life, so it should be a pretty minor adjustment, LaHair said. In the back of my mind, there was always the thought of me moving to the outfield at some point, so its not a complete surprise.

This will be a new challenge.

The Cubs are getting very close to the point where restarting the meter on Rizzos major-league service time will make more financial sense. The fans cant wait to see the face of the future at Wrigley Field, and its almost time to give in to the hype.

Hes one that you go to the computer every day to see what he did, Sveum said. But we had a plan to start with, so there was no early arrival or anything like that. We knew he had to develop and we had a gameplan and we were going to stick to it.

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.”