What we learned about the Cubs in April

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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.

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs turned Theo Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” speech from his first Wrigley Field press conference into a marketing pitch that might distract fans for a moment from an awful big-league product.          

The 2017 “That’s Cub” ad campaign actually uses what started organically years ago within the farm system, two words that recognized a great at-bat or a heads-up play or a defensive stop.    

Business vs. baseball is no longer the dominant storyline it had been during the early phases of the Wrigleyvile rebuild. Business and baseball are booming for what’s become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.

It’s just interesting that a franchise valued at north of $2 billion has found so much inspiration on the back fields of this spring-training complex, where staffers you wouldn’t recognize get to work before dawn and players you’ve never heard of dream about their big break.

It’s not just drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. And trading for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell. And hiring a manager obsessed with T-shirts. Baseball operations became a marketing department, selling prospects to Cub fans, the Chicago media and the gurus putting together the rankings – and trying to get buy-in from players who all think they belong in The Show.

Minor-league field coordinator Tim Cossins gets credit for “When It Happens,” a theme that didn’t simply revolve around 1908 and the championship drought. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, suggested pairing the W flag with that phrase, and it became this ubiquitous idea around the team.   

“We tied everything into it,” McLeod said Sunday at Sloan Park. “When that time comes, when it happens, can you lay the bunt down? When it happens, can you execute a pitch? Can you go in and pinch-run, steal the base when the time comes?

“The big ‘When It Happens’ is when we win, of course, but for us in (player development), it was about everything that we’re going to be asked to do in that moment: Are you going to be ready when it happens?”

Now what? The defending World Series champs are going with: “Where It Happens.”

A bullet point from Epstein’s bio in this year’s media guide references how his first three first-round draft picks with the Cubs “combined to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when Schwarber singled and (Albert) Almora pinch-ran, moved to second on Bryant’s deep fly to center, and scored on Ben Zobrist’s double.”

“We’re never going to forget about the importance of young players,” Epstein said. “There’s definitely a lot of talented, interesting prospects still in the system and sometimes they get a little overshadowed because of the star young players we have at the big-league level and how quickly some of those guys moved through the system. But there’s a lot of talent there.

“We’re going to lean on young players beyond our prospects, not just in trades, but also to provide organizational depth and also to serve as the next generation, the next infusion of talent at the appropriate time.

“But it’s a process. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in development for all these guys. And we have a ton of faith in our player development operation to help these guys along the way.”

So Ian Happ will start the season one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa and see if some combination of injuries and his switch-hitting skills and defensive versatility gets him to the North Side at some point. Or used as a trade chip for pitching, the way third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Victor Caratini appear to be blocked.

Joe Maddon already compared Eloy Jimenez – who can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet – to a young Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Martinez. The Cubs are practically begging for someone like Eddie Butler to pitch his way into the 2018 rotation.

By Monday morning, when the full squad reconvenes after a weekend trip to Las Vegas, the Cubs could start making cuts and shaping their Opening Night roster. But the Cubs are going to need so much more than the 25 players who will be introduced next Sunday at Busch Stadium. Maddon used 26 pitchers and 149 different lineups last season. This is “Where It Happens.”

“If this particular group of youngsters were in a different organization that had a greater need right now, you’d probably hear a lot more about these guys,” Maddon said. “But the fact that they’re stuck behind a Bryant and a Russell and a Javy (Baez) and a Rizzo and a (Willson) Contreras and a Schwarber, et cetera, et cetera, it becomes more difficult to really push or project upon these guys.

“But I think these young guys have gone about their business really well. If it’s bothering them or if they’re concerned about that, they’re not showing that. I think they’ve put their best foot forward.”

Honda Road Ahead: Bulls continue playoff push against Cavaliers, Hawks

Honda Road Ahead: Bulls continue playoff push against Cavaliers, Hawks

Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill and Will Perdue break down the Bulls' upcoming schedule in the latest edition of the Bulls Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Honda dealers.

TNT Bulls are back this week as the team heads into a crucial stretch. 

Currently, the Bulls sit half a game back of the Miami Heat for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and with just eight games remaining on the schedule, each contest is essentially a must-win. 

So, yes, Thursday would be a great time for Jimmy Butler and company to summon their TNT alter ego. The Bulls have sealed 18 straight victories when playing on TNT Thursday, an improbable feat considering those games are usually reserved for two of the NBA's best. 

To continue that run, they'll have to down Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are also fighting for playoff positioning -- albeit at the top of the conference. Good thing the Bulls have a tendency to get up for big games. 

"The Bulls play up and down to their competition," Bulls Pregame and Postgame analyst Kendall Gill said. "They've been doing that the whole season." 

After Cleveland, the Bulls get set to battle another playoff squad, the Atlanta Hawks. 

Watch the video above to see Schanowski, Gill and Perdue break down the matchups.