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Cubs’ first-place success creates interesting dilemma for future of the franchise

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Cubs' first-place success creates interesting dilemma for future of the franchise

Contending in 2021 was a bit of an afterthought for the Cubs this past offseason. But here we are, a few days into June, and the club sits alone in first place in the NL Central, one-and-a-half games ahead of the Cardinals and three up on the Brewers. 

It’s not a completely shocking development, but it is pretty unexpected. Why? Let’s take a quick look back at how the front office folks operated this offseason. 

They gave longtime rotation anchor Jon Lester a $10 million buyout to leave, rather than paying him $25 million to pitch for the club in 2021. They non-tendered Kyle Schwarber in early December, meaning they chose not to offer a contract to a player who hit 94 homers for the team from 2017 to 2019, despite that he was under club control. Lester and Schwarber both wound up signing with the Nationals. The Cubs let Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood leave via free agency. Individually, of course, there were reasons for all those decisions, because of costs and/or declining production. 

MORE: MLB 2021 awards: Who are early contenders for MVP, Cy Young?

But just in case their “to contend or not to contend” motivations were murky, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, they traded ace Yu Darvish — the right-hander had a 2.01 ERA with 93 strikeouts in 76 innings in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and finished second in the NL Cy Young race — to the Padres for back-of-the-rotation starter Zack Davies and four prospects who are a long way from big league ready. 

The signal was clear. The Cubs might contend by accident, or as a nice bonus, but contending was not the front office’s primary concern for 2021. They spent a bit of money, on nostalgia — bringing back 35-year-old Jake Arrieta on a one-year/club option deal — or on a roll of the dice — slugging outfielder Joc Pederson on a similarly structured contract.

And yet, here we are in June and the Cubs are in first place. It’s great … kinda.

The success actually creates a bit of a dilemma. There was a reason the Cubs were not in “contend now” mode this offseason. The core group that led the franchise to the 2016 World Series title will not be around much longer. They jettisoned Lester and Schwarber a year earlier than they had to — getting nothing back for them, in terms of prospect or draft-pick compensation — and the list of impending free agents is daunting. 

Let’s look at the familiar faces who could be playing elsewhere relatively soon.

3B Kris Bryant: Free agent after 2021 

Bryant’s resurgence this season — he was not good in 2020 — is as big a reason for Chicago’s success as any. Bryant, in his Age 29 season, is on the short list of MVP candidates in the NL through the first two months of the season, sporting a slash line above the .300/.400/.600 plateaus for most of the season. 

SS Javier Baez: Free agent after 2021

Baez, in his Age 28 season, makes things happen, with Exhibit 2,133,534 being the play that made all the highlight reels against Pittsburgh last week. Like Bryant, Baez was not good in 2020, but is right back up toward his career levels — 123 OPS+, 14 homers and eight stolen bases in 50 games.  

1B Anthony Rizzo: Yep, free agent after 2021

It’s starting to become clear why the Cubs were looking ahead instead of solely at 2021, right? So many mainstays as short-timers. Rizzo, who is a couple of years older at 31, has only five homers so far this year, but his on-base percentage (.377) is right at his career average (.372) and so is his OPS+ (134; career average is 129). Like Baez and Bryant, Rizzo has been much better in 2021 than he was in 2020. 

C Willson Contreras: Free agent after 2022

Contreras, in his Age 29 season, has nine homers and a 122 OPS+, with a 1.7 bWAR through 49 games this year. And a massively overlooked part of the “Baez Play” against the Pirates was Contreras racing all the way from second base to home plate in the time it took Baez and first baseman Will Craig to tango their way from first to home. An incredibly aggressive, alert hustle play from Contreras.

Closer Craig Kimbrel: Free agent after 2022 (if Cubs pick up 2022 option)

Kimbrel wasn’t part of Chicago’s World Series title, of course, but he’s in his third year with the Cubs. The first two were mostly disasters — 6.00 ERA and 6.0 BB/9 in 41 combined outings, with four blown saves in 19 opportunities — but he’s been really good this year. This is vintage Kimbrel, with a 0.78 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 23 innings. 

Will the Cubs buy or sell?

The Cubs, as currently constructed, absolutely could win the NL Central. This is not a division where it’s going to take 100 wins to secure a title. It’s entirely possible that the division champ winds up with 91 or 92 wins. The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers — all three teams enter play Thursday within a couple of games of each other — are all very flawed teams. The Reds are talented, but already five games under .500 and seven out of first place, and they have contract issues of their own, primarily Nick Castellanos’ opt-out after this season. 

A division title would be great, of course. But getting through the NL playoffs and to the World Series — with the Dodgers and/or Padres as giant hurdles — is a much different challenge than winning the NL Central. It’s hard to imagine these Cubs getting into the World Series as currently constructed. They’d need an ace like, I dunno, Yu Darvish. 

And the opportunity cost could be great. They already lost Lester and Schwarber without any sort of return at all. Not getting anything back for Schwarber, particularly, shows the potential cost of waiting too long;  remember when AL teams salivated over the thought of having him as their DH? They cannot repeat those mistakes with Bryant, Baez and Rizzo, too. Not if they want to remain regular World Series contenders.

Even getting draft-pick compensation for Bryant and/or Baez — Rizzo doesn’t seem likely to get a qualifying offer heading into his Age 32 season — feels like a less-than-ideal situation, especially with the uncertainty of what promises to be a contentious offseason when the collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association runs out.  

For the long-term health of the franchise, it’s pretty clear that the best course of action is to trade as many of the productive veterans as possible. Bryant and Baez, particularly, would fetch a decent return from contenders looking to add bats in a year when offensive production is down across the board. Contreras, with his extra year of club control and a power bat from the catcher spot, has a lot of value. And what contender wouldn’t pay to add Kimbrel to the back of the bullpen while chasing a World Series title? 

But can the Cubs really trade away those players — players who meant so much to the most iconic team in the past 100-plus years of franchise history — while the team is in first place, or even close to first place? 

That would be a tough pill for Cubs fans to swallow, especially as the season moves on and Wrigley Field gets back toward full capacity. “Welcome back, fans! We traded all your favorite players!” isn’t exactly a great slogan for a banner. 

For now, there’s no big rush. Maybe the Cubs will come back to earth a bit, and that bullpen — a collection of 30-something pitchers, mostly, which has been outstanding — hits a rough stretch. Maybe they fall behind the Brewers and Cardinals by early July and trades become more palatable. Maybe.

That’s why, as they say, they play the games.  

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NBA Mock Draft 2021: Pistons lock in Cade Cunningham pick; Cavs, Raptors win big with lottery jumps

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NBA Mock Draft 2021: Pistons nab Cade Cunningham; Cavs, Raptors win big with lottery jumps

Welcome to the 2021 NBA Draft. The Pistons are on the clock.

After winning Tuesday night’s NBA Draft lottery drawing, Detroit is in position to land a franchise-changing prospect with the No. 1 overall pick. But the Pistons aren’t the only team whose fortunes may have been changed by some ping-pong balls.

The Rockets, Cavaliers, Raptors and more could end up selecting key pieces of their rosters on July 29. This year’s draft class has some tremendous talent at the top, and a few of these young players will be expected to contribute immediately upon entering the league.

With just over a month to go until the picks start rolling in, here is Sporting News’ best attempt at a mock draft.

NBA DRAFT BIG BOARD: Ranking the top 60 prospects in 2021

(Getty Images)

NBA Mock Draft 2021, post-lottery edition

1. Pistons — Cade Cunningham, G, Oklahoma State (19 years old)

Cunningham is viewed as the consensus top pick because he has the size and skill set that all NBA teams covet. He averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game, and he shot 40 percent on 155 3-point attempts in his lone season with the Cowboys. The turnover numbers weren’t great (4.0 per game), but it should be noted that Cunningham was carrying a largely limited roster.

2. Rockets — Evan Mobley, C, USC (19 years old)

Mobley is the kind of big man that is built to excel in the modern NBA. He can protect the rim (2.9 blocks per game) but moves fluidly enough to stick with guards in the pick-and-roll. He also has the potential to grow as a perimeter threat offensively. The key to his development will be adding muscle to his frame (7-0, 215 pounds).

3. Cavaliers — Jalen Green, G, G League Ignite (19 years old)

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Green emerge as the best pure scorer from this class, as he averaged 17.9 points on 46.1 percent shooting in 15 G League games. He is an outstanding athlete capable of finishing at the rim, even when he has to fight through contact. He needs to improve his playmaking and be more active defensively, but Green undoubtedly possesses tremendous upside.

4. Raptors — Jalen Suggs, G, Gonzaga (19 years old)

One of the biggest stars in college basketball last season, Suggs showed himself to be a terrific leader capable of functioning as a team’s primary offensive creator. While Suggs isn’t a long-range sniper (33.7 percent on 3-pointers), he should be able to develop into a more consistent shooter, and he is a smart off-ball cutter and screener.

5. Magic — Jonathan Kuminga, F, G League Ignite (18 years old)

Much like Green, Kuminga is one of the best athletes from this group of prospects. His size, strength and wingspan could allow him to eventually become a legitimate two-way wing, but he will need time to develop. Kuminga can be a ball-stopper offensively and doesn’t always bring the required intensity defensively. His shooting splits weren’t exactly inspiring (38.7/24.6/62.5 on field goals, 3-pointers and free throws), though it wouldn’t be fair to say his shot is completely broken. 

6. Thunder — Scottie Barnes, F, Florida State (19 years old)

There is a future in which Barnes makes multiple All-Defensive teams. Florida State threw him on just about every type of player, from lead ball handlers to back-to-the-basket big men. He has demonstrated an ability to be a good facilitator, but his shot must improve in order for him to earn respect from opposing defenders (27.5 percent from beyond the arc, 62.1 percent on free throws).

7. Warriors (via Timberwolves) — Davion Mitchell, G, Baylor (22 years old)

Mitchell made a real impression during Baylor’s championship run, stifling any player put in front of him. While he is known as a tenacious defender, Mitchell’s most notable improvements came on the other end of the floor. He became an excellent playmaker (5.5 assists per game) and saw a dramatic jump in his 3-point shooting (32.4 percent in 2019-20, 44.7 percent in 2020-21).

8. Magic (via Bulls) — Keon Johnson, G, Tennessee (19 years old)

Perhaps the best word to describe Johnson is explosive. When this guy drives down the lane and takes off toward the basket, good luck trying to stop him. He also uses that quickness and athleticism well on the defensive end to give opposing guards problems. Johnson’s main focus should be on extending his range, as he shot just 13 of 38 from beyond the arc at Tennessee. 

9. Kings — Franz Wagner, F, Michigan (19 years old)

Wagner displayed versatility on both ends of the floor while at Michigan. He is a smart team defender who can bang with frontcourt players but hold his own against smaller guards. He can also affect the game offensively without eating up possessions, operating as an elbow passer, screener or spot-up shooter. He may not have the ceiling of the guys in front of him, but he could play in the league for a long time.

10. Pelicans — Corey Kispert, F, Gonzaga (22 years old)

One of the top shooters in this class (44 percent on 6.5 3-point attempts per game last season), Kispert’s accuracy and quick trigger should allow him to make an immediate impact at the next level. He isn’t an exceptional athlete, but he battles on the defensive end. He must continue to develop his dribbling skills so he can punish opponents who close out hard to the 3-point line. 

11. Hornets — Alperen Sengun, C, Besiktas (18 years old)

An old-school, post-up big man, Sengun dominated the Turkish Super League, averaging 19.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 64.6 percent from the field. He has great touch around the rim and has shown a willingness to hit the open man. There are questions about his lack of shooting and defensive limitations.

12. Spurs — Jalen Johnson, F, Duke (19 years old)

Johnson only played 13 games at Duke, leaving the team in February in order to focus on preparing for the NBA Draft. His tantalizing talent was on full display at times, particularly his ability to create for himself and others in the open floor. Will those flashes of brilliance outweigh possible concerns about his maturity?

13. Pacers — Josh Giddey, G, Adelaide (18 years old)

Giddey won NBL Rookie of the Year after averaging 10.9 points, 7.5 assists and 7.4 rebounds per game. He understands how to manipulate defenses and create passing lanes. He isn’t a lights-out shooter (29.3 on 3-pointers) or out-of-this-world athlete, but there is reason to believe he will develop into nice piece of an NBA rotation.

14. Warriors — James Bouknight, G, Connecticut (20 years old)

Bouknight gets buckets. A natural scorer (18.7 points per game), the UConn star can find his way to the basket and hit contested jump shots off the dribble, an important skill for NBA guards. He will have to work on his passing and provide more consistent resistance on the defensive end, but he should provide plenty of offensive firepower.

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USA Olympic gymnastics trials 2021: TV schedule, live streams to watch qualifying for Tokyo

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USA Olympic gymnastics trials 2021: TV schedule, live streams to watch qualifying for Tokyo

There may be somewhat of a changing of the guard on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team for the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo. Simone Biles will be a constant for the women’s team, but aside from her, little will remain the same.

That’s why there will be a level of intrigue surrounding the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, which take place from June 24-27 at The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, Mo. Notably, competitors like Jordan Chiles, Jade Carey and Suni Lee will look to earn spots on the four-gymnast women’s team while two others compete for individual specialist roles.

For the men, all four qualifiers will be chosen as well. Only Sam Mikulak remains from the 2016 Olympic team, so there will be a few new faces on that team, too.

Sporting News has you covered on how to watch each of the gymnastics qualifying events throughout the entirety of the trials:

MORE: Watch the Olympic gymnastics trials live with fuboTV (7-day trial)

How to watch USA Olympic gymnastic trials

  • TV channels: NBC, NBC Sports

NBC owns the exclusive rights to all Olympic broadcasts in the United States and will be airing the gymnastics trials from June 24-27.

TV Schedule

The USA Olympic gymnastics trials will take place in St. Louis, Mo. from June 24-27. Each day consists of several rounds of each of the four women’s events and six men’s events in gymnastics.

Here’s NBC’s full scheduled TV coverage for the USA Olympic gymnastic trials. For a full schedule of events for the trials, click here.

Thursday, June 24

Event Time (ET) Channel
Men Day 1 6:30-9 p.m. NBCSN

Friday, June 25

Event Time (ET) Channel
Women Day 1 7:30-8 p.m. Olympic Channel
Women Day 1 8-10 p.m. NBC

Saturday, June 26

Event Time (ET) Channel
Men Day 2 3-4 p.m. Olympic Channel
Men Day 2 4-6 p.m. NBC

Sunday, June 27

Event Time (ET) Channel
Women Day 2 8-8:30 p.m. Olympic Channel
Women Day 2 8:30-11 p.m. NBC

Olympic trials gymnastics schedule 2021

The gymnastics trials are unique compared to other Olympic qualifiers, as they will largely consist of the same 4-6 events on a daily basis with different gymnasts participating in them each day.

For the men, there are six Olympic events:

  • Vault
  • Pommel horse
  • Floor
  • Rings
  • Horizontal bar
  • Parallel bars

For the women, there are four:

  • Vault
  • Floor
  • Uneven bars
  • Beam

Throughout the televised coverage, you will see these events in action. Here are the big competitors to watch on each day of the 2021 U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials.

For a full look at the events and start lists, click here.

Thursday, June 24

  • Sam Mikulak
  • Brody Malone
  • Yul Moldauer
  • Akash Modi
  • Donnell Whittenburg

These five men will compete in all six events during Thursday’s competition.

Friday, June 25

  • Simone Biles
  • Jordan Chiles
  • Suni Lee
  • Jade Carey
  • MyKayla Skinner

These five women will compete in all four events during Friday’s competition.

Saturday, June 26

The same five men will bear watching on Saturday during the finals, including any other gymnasts that make noise during the qualification process.

  • Sam Mikulak
  • Brody Malone
  • Yul Moldauer
  • Akash Modi
  • Donnell Whittenburg

Sunday, June 27

The same five women will bear watching on Saturday during the finals, including any other gymnasts that make noise during the qualification process.

  • Simone Biles
  • Jordan Chiles
  • Suni Lee
  • Jade Carey
  • MyKayla Skinner

USA gymnastics live streams

All of Team USA’s gymnastics events will be available to stream on Peacock, NBC’s streaming platform. You can also stream the events with fuboTV when they are aired on NBC or NBC Sports. NBCSports.com and NBCOlympics.com will carry some of the earlier qualifying events. 

Olympic gymnastic trials results 2021

The top two all-around women’s gymnasts at the U.S. Olympic trials will automatically qualify for Team USA. The U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team will consist of a four-competitor team along with two additional individual slots, which the United States earned the right to bring to the Summer Games as individual athletes to compete as specialists in line with new rules that allow smaller nations to be competitive.

The men’s side is simpler. The top four finishers at the Olympic trials will make the roster, while they have earned one extra spot for a specialst. 

Women’s

Event Top Scorers
Vault
Uneven bars
Beam
Floor

Men’s

Event Top Scorers
Vault
Pommel horse
Floor
Rings
Horizontal bar
Parallel bars

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Islanders, Anthony Beauvillier force Game 7 in (possibly) last game at Nassau Coliseum

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Islanders, Anthony Beauvillier force Game 7 in (possibly) last game at Nassau Coliseum

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The Islanders staved off closure of the Nassau Coliseum for at least a little longer with a 3-2, come-from-behind overtime win Wednesday night. Whether the ice can be melted one final time at the Old Barn is now labeled as “to be determined” as the home team forced a Game 7.

“We’re obviously a resilient group and we knew we had a lot of time on the clock still, so, just stuck with it and fortunate to get two goals and tie it up and obviously win in overtime,” said Mathew Barzal. 

Things started a little better for the Islanders than they did two nights prior when they were blown out of Amalie Arena in Tampa 8-0. The first goal of that game came just 45 seconds after the drop of the puck. In this game, they came out matching the tempo with the Bolts in front of a loud and boisterous crowd. But the fans were all hushed when Brayden Point did, well, Brayden Point things — again.

The Calgary, Alta., native lit the lamp for the ninth consecutive game; only Reggie Leach’s 10 straight games with a goal stands in his way of the record.

In the second period, the Lightning killed off a 5-on-3 for about a minute before Anthony Cirelli gave them a two-goal lead. His fourth goal of the postseason went five-hole through netminder Semyon Varlamov. But the Islanders, with the crowd fully behind them, got one back with under six minutes left in the middle frame. Jordan Eberle, who entered Game 6 with just three goals in the postseason and amid a six-game goal drought, threw a backhander on net and past the blocker of Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The Islanders had their chances after that. Barzal controlled the puck for a Steve Yzerman amount of time in the first few minutes of the third period. Kyle Palmieri pulled Vasilevskiy out but couldn’t tuck the puck in behind him. Eberle had a chance for his second with just over 12 minutes to go.

Maybe they got a jump from Jets guard Greg Van Roten pounding a beer and then smashing the container on his head. Maybe it was because it seemed as if the crowd was standing the rest of the way. 

With 8:44 left on the clock, Scott Mayfield — who probably should have been called for cross-checking Nikita Kucherov in the back and knocking him out of the game after one shift— became an unlikely Islanders hero. He went down the right wing and beat Vasilevskiy top shelf to even things. It was just his third career playoff goal and his first since Game 3 of the first round against the Penguins.

The building was hopping after that, although things got dicey for the hometown team when Matt Martin took a high-sticking penalty with 5:57 remaining. Varlamov and his crew held the Lightning at bay, and with the fans chanting a deafening “Let’s Go Islanders,” the game went to a nail-biting overtime.

New York didn’t need much time in the extra session, however.

Just 68 seconds in, Anthony Beauvillier intercepted a pass deep in the offensive zone — he said postgame that he blacked out — and buried it.

“Feels amazing, to be honest. That building coming into overtime was smelling like cigarettes and now it smells like beers,” said the goal scorer. “That place was going crazy so everyone is happy we’re going back to Tampa.”

The building erupted as the Islanders flew off the bench to swarm the overtime hero. And as the team celebrated, so did the fans — by throwing beer cans and bottles onto the ice and sticking around long past the team had left the ice.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Barzal with a smile before adding it was “a little dangerous.”

“It’s one of the best [moments],” said bench boss Barry Trotz when asked where Game 6 will rank among his career hghlights. “I love this group, the character of this group. And this building and what it’s meant to a number of players and more than anything, our fans. These are great moments. Going off the ice, everybody’s hugging each other, there’s beer cans flying all over. It’s quite a sight.  

“These are great memories to have. But we’ve got to get another one.”

It’ll now come down to that Game 7 on Friday night in Tampa to determine who will play for the Stanley Cup.

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