Cubs

Cubs will open spring training with World Series-or-bust mindset

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Cubs will open spring training with World Series-or-bust mindset

Where the Cubs used to have to talk themselves into believing this might be the year — if this happens, if that happens, maybe we’ll surprise some people — now everyone is telling them how great they are.

There will be no escaping the hype when pitchers and catchers officially report on Friday in Arizona, with Mesa becoming a Cactus League hotspot for the national media and the TV networks trying to get a piece of a franchise desperate for its first World Series title since 1908.

FanGraphs projects the Cubs will be the best team in baseball and finish with a +122 run differential. The PECOTA system run through Baseball Prospectus predicts 92 victories and the Cubs winning their division by nine games.

Preseason power rankings for Sports Illustrated, Yahoo! Sports and ESPN all have the Cubs at No. 1. Websites like VegasInsider and OddsSharks that track sports books list the Cubs as the favorites to win the World Series.

Instead of resting on 97 wins, the Cubs responded with a full-throttle offseason, spending $272 million on outfielder Jason Heyward, second baseman Ben Zobrist and pitcher John Lackey, three All-Star level players who combined have been part of 28 playoff series.

“Last year is over with,” Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s time to gear up for 2016.

“Everyone knows what they need to do to be ready. And we have a really good group of guys that are accountable for everything.”

[MORE CUBS: Five storylines for spring training]

Rizzo knew it would go viral when he predicted the Cubs would win the division last year, changing the conversation and emerging as the leader/DJ in a relaxed clubhouse tricked out with disco lighting.

Besides Rizzo, a two-time All-Star first baseman and MVP candidate, the Cubs are stacked with players who will be 26 or younger on Opening Day. There’s Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, franchise shortstop Addison Russell and Internet sensation Kyle Schwarber, who’s already broken a car windshield at Sloan Park. Plus, super-utility guy Javier Baez, Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, Dartmouth-educated pitcher Kyle Hendricks and Heyward, a three-time Gold Glove winner.

“I feel like we’re going to win the division,” Schwarber said. “We showed what we could do when we’re all in it for the common goal.

“Now we know what to expect. There’s probably going to be more targets on our back. We’re going to have to come with our A-game every game.”

As a third-place team that trailed the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates during the regular season — and got swept out of the National League Championship Series by the New York Mets — the Cubs have unfinished business.

“Any time you don’t win a World Series, I don’t think you accomplish your goal,” Bryant said. “We’re playing this game to win a World Series, especially for the Chicago Cubs. Fans (want) that. And this year, we’re in a good position for it.”

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Jake Arrieta gave this team a killer instinct and will front the rotation after his Cy Young Award season. Combined, Lackey and Jon Lester have won four World Series rings and thrown more than 4,500 innings in The Show. Joe Maddon — a three-time Manager of the Year — will be at the controls of a deep and versatile bullpen.

“I love expectations,” said Lester, who thought 2016 would be the all-in year when he signed a $155 million contract after the 2014 season. “You got to back up what you did the year before. It’s something I’ve always tried to take pride in — go out and worry about doing your job.

“That trickles down to everybody. All these young guys have good heads on their shoulders, and they all work hard. They all get it. They understand the game. It’s going to be an exciting year for us.”

It’s not going to be an in-between year for the Cubs. By the end, there will be either pure joy in Wrigleyville or October agony.

“There’s no doubt every player who had to watch the Mets celebrate on the field is extraordinarily hungry to win eight more games in October than we did last year,” team president Theo Epstein said.

“We’re unified by that common goal. It’s the most important thing in the lives of a lot of people — fans, players, front office alike. And we’re out to reach our goals this year and make a lot of people happy, knowing that there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs along the way.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: