Theo Epstein says Cubs will grind through tough start

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Theo Epstein says Cubs will grind through tough start

Near the end of spring training, Theo Epstein told beat reporters that he could write their stories for them. The Cubs president of baseball operations already saw their angles.

Epstein didn't know when it was coming, but at some point he predicted the headlines would scream: The honeymoon is over.

The city isn't there yet, even if the Cubs had lost five of their first six games. As much as fans will demand to see Epstein riding on a float down Michigan Avenue, deep down they seem resigned that 2012 will be a bridge year.

Epstein watched batting practice from behind the cage on Thursday at Wrigley Field and then walked into the Cubs dugout.

Holding a dark suit jacket in his hands, the collar to his white dress shirt open, Epstein declined when a reporter jokingly asked him to write the lede.

"No, we've been in every game," Epstein said. "We just got to grind through it. These things even out."

A few hours later, almost everything fell into place in an 8-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. A lineup that had scored 19 runs in the season's first six games dropped eight on Cy Young winner Zack Greinke and went 7-for-12 with runners in scoring position.

There was Alfonso Soriano flicking a broken-bat, two-run single into right field, then stealing second base and crossing home plate with dirt covering the front of his uniform.

There was Matt Garza, one out away from a complete-game shutout, firing the ball into the seats behind first base. Who writes this stuff?

"No, I'm not discouraged about anything," Epstein said. "We just got to keep grinding. We faced some pretty good pitching. We haven't really locked in our approach yet. Our right-on-right performance hasn't been exemplary yet, but we'll get there.

"We got to make things tougher on opposing starters. It's tough to win games when they can be as efficient as they've been. Even early in the season, with the lower pitch counts, it keeps them in the games late. When you go starting pitcher, setup guy, closer, it's tough to win.

"You got to try to get into the other end of their bullpen. You do that by grinding at-bats, seeing pitches, having a disciplined approach. So we'll get there. We're a week into the season. We're finding our way."

No, the Cubs aren't relentless like those Boston Red Sox teams that used to grind out at-bats and play deep into October. You can't just rewire this lineup, flip a switch and expect it to be patient.

But the rotation has been better than advertised, and you've noticed how aggressive the Cubs have been on the bases. Dale Sveum projected calm after the bullpen meltdowns and doesn't carry himself like a first-year manager.

That's why catcher Geovany Soto pointed out they're only one pitch away, and second baseman Darwin Barney said you don't pull the chute in Week 1.

"Yeah, we've had a couple nights where we haven't had the best of luck," Garza said. "But I'll take the way we're playing over anything right now. The record might not show it, but we're playing good baseball.

"We're running out balls. We're making other teams panic. We're pitching, throwing strikes, playing catch.

"That's good baseball right there. The hits and the offense will come. But as long as we keep pitching and playing defense, we'll be all right."

Epstein has promised that his front office will block out all the noise on talk radio and shrug off what's written online and in the newspapers. The sky is falling in Boston, where the Red Sox also woke up on Thursday with a 1-5 record.

"Tough starts are always amplified," Epstein said, "no matter where you are, because there's no reference point for anybody when you're that early in the season.

"When teams have tough weeks at the start of the season, it gets a lot more attention than it would if it was the middle of August somewhere. No matter what team you're talking about, they're getting into the grind of the season.

"I'm not going to talk about another team, other than to say, 'Hey, they have a ton of time, they'll be fine.'"

The Red Sox will be celebrating Fenway Park's 100th anniversary on April 20. Every ex-player and manager has been invited to that game against the New York Yankees, for what should be a blowout ceremony.

This week Terry Francona told Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy that he has no interest in attending. The former manager felt like his reputation was stained by anonymous sources on the way out of town last year.

Epstein grew up not far from Yawkey Way and helped build two teams that won World Series titles and changed New England forever. Will he be there?

"No, we have a game that night," Epstein said.

Saad Day: Blackhawks deal Artemi Panarin for familiar face

Saad Day: Blackhawks deal Artemi Panarin for familiar face

When the Blackhawks found Artemi Panarin, they found a talent who was NHL ready from the start, who found instant chemistry with Patrick Kane and earned a Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. It was also a tremendous panacea for a team that couldn’t pull off a deal to keep Brandon Saad, who was the power forward that fit in beautifully in the Blackhawks’ top six.

On Friday, the Blackhawks brought Saad back and dealt Panarin to do it.   

Saad returns to the Blackhawks, who also acquire goaltender Anton Forsberg, in exchange for Panarin and Tyler Motte. The Blackhawks also get the Blue Jackets’ fifth-round pick in the 2018 NHL draft and the Columbus gets Chicago’s sixth-round pick from this weekend’s draft. Elliotte Friedman was the first to report the deal. The Blackhawks inherit Saad’s deal, which has four years remaining at a $6 million cap hit. Panarin was about to enter his current deal, which is two years with a $6 million cap hit.

[MORE: Blackhawks deal Hjalmarsson to Arizona]

The Blackhawks have missed Saad terribly since his departure. The team has struggled to find consistent line mates with Jonathan Toews, especially at that left-wing position. They did fairly well with Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik flanking Toews this season but it wasn’t as strong as the Saad-Toews combination. So it looks like the Blackhawks’ top line will be solidified again.

Now, what about the second line? As good as Toews and Saad’s chemistry was, Panarin’s and Kane’s was dynamite. The two had their respective skill, which they flashed often, and their ability to read each other was evident from the start. The Blackhawks’ second line was as consistent and steady the past two seasons as the top line was during Saad’s time here.

So, there are changes. The Blackhawks will absolutely miss what Panarin brings. But as far as bringing back a former Blackhawks player who could help in the present, getting the 24-year-old Saad back will be very beneficial. 

Blackhawks pull off stunner, trade Niklas Hjalmarsson to Coyotes

Blackhawks pull off stunner, trade Niklas Hjalmarsson to Coyotes

Niklas Hjalmarsson has been part of the Blackhawks’ renaissance since the rebuild began in the mid-2000s, a longtime steady presence on the blue line who has had some clutch moments in the Blackhawks’ three Stanley Cup runs. But on Friday, the player with one of the Blackhawks’ best contracts was sent packing.

Hjalmarsson was traded to the Arizona Coyotes for defensemen Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin on Friday morning. With Hjalmarsson, the Blackhawks give up a tremendous defenseman with a winning pedigree.

“Niklas’ contributions to the three Stanley Cup championship teams are well known but his dependability as a teammate, selfless attitude and the way he represented the Chicago Blackhawks on and off the ice are what made him such a beloved member of the organization,” said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said in a statement. “He made his debut in Chicago in 2008 and quietly established himself as one of the toughest competitors in franchise history. We wish he and his family continued success.”

The 30-year-old defenseman has two years remaining on his current contract, which carries a $4.1 million cap hit. The 24-year-old Murphy has five years remaining on his current contract ($3.85 million cap hit). Dauphin is in the final year of his current entry-level contract ($745,000). According to CapFriendly, if Dauphin plays for the Rockford IceHogs this season, the Blackhawks can save $250,000 in cap space.

But this isn’t about money as much as the Blackhawks needing to get younger on defense. Murphy has played all four of his NHL seasons with the Coyotes. Last season he had two goals and 15 assists in 77 games.

Still, giving up Hjalmarsson is a tough one. Hjalmarsson has been a strong, steady presence for the Blackhawks. He once again led the team in blocked shots (181). Plenty of bumps, bruises and pain come with that job description but despite that, Hjalmarsson hasn’t missed much time. Since the 2012-13 season Hjalmarsson has missed just 12 games, and just four of those have been due to injury (suspected back injury last season).

The Blackhawks’ defense looked older and slower in their brief postseason run against the Nashville Predators, and they certainly have to start moving toward the future. But with Hjalmarsson playing at the level he has the past few seasons, his absence will hurt.