Cubs

Is this season a failure if Cubs don’t win the World Series?

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Is this season a failure if Cubs don’t win the World Series?

ANAHEIM, Calif. – If the Cubs don’t win the World Series, will this season be a failure?

The Cubs are light years away from pitchers getting asked about the trade deadline as soon as they report to spring training, or managers sitting on the hot seat, or prospects becoming overloaded with attention to distract everyone from the awful big-league product.

Year 5 of the Theo Epstein administration began on a beautiful, 75-degrees-and-sunny night in Southern California, with fireworks, a flyover and a sellout crowd (44,020) at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. But anxious Cubs fans, the build-‘em-up Chicago media and all those national experts can’t fast forward to October.

There is still more than 99 percent of the season left to play after Jake Arrieta again looked like a Cy Young Award winner while dominating the Los Angeles Angels during Monday’s 9-0 victory.

“I don’t think it’s fair to sit here on Opening Day and determine what’s going to be a success and what’s going to be a failure,” Epstein said. “It’s fair at the end of the year. As I look back on last year, I can identify a lot of things that were successes. And I can identify a lot of things that were failures, even in what was overall seen as a pretty darn good year for the organization.

“That’s what we’ll do at the end of the season, sit back and take stock on that and hope that these are the types of questions we’re asked again next Opening Day. The fact that you’re asking that means a lot’s going right for this organization.

“That’s a good feeling, but it doesn’t mean anything. We have to go out and prove it. We have to go out and earn it. We have to go out and overcome the adversity. That process starts today.

“That’s how we’re wired as an organization. Not to sit here and judge exactly what a success might be or who’s starting what game of the playoffs. We have to go earn it. We have nothing. We have nothing but each other, talent, character and an opportunity.”

[MORE: Cubs moving closer to extension with Theo Epstein]  

The Cubs skipped the steppingstone season by winning 97 games and two playoff rounds last year – and then slamming on the accelerator this winter with almost $290 million spent on free agents.

The Cubs still had four 25-and-under players starting on Opening Day – Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler – for the first time since 1975. That critical mass of young talent means the buzz around this team is here to stay.

“Nothing’s promised in this game – or in life,” Epstein said. “Windows slam shut. People get run over by buses crossing the street. You can’t control everything. So you want to make the most of every day. You want to make the most of every opportunity.

“If you don’t get there, you want to make sure it wasn’t because you didn’t work hard enough, you weren’t aggressive enough, you weren’t committed enough. And I don’t think these players have that problem whatsoever.”

Looking physically recharged and emotionally refreshed after the greatest second half by any pitcher in the history of the game, Arrieta allowed only two hits and one walk across seven innings before the Cubs shut him down at 89 pitches.

“That’s a tone that we want to set early,” Arrieta said. “We were ready for this moment.”

A lineup with some American League thump generated 11 hits and seven walks. The Cubs made Garrett Richards throw 97 pitches before knocking the Angels starter out after five innings.

There was Dexter Fowler – Joe Maddon’s “You go, we go” leadoff guy who waited all winter for the big score in free agency only to return on a one-year, $13 million guarantee – beginning the game with a double to right field, scoring on Anthony Rizzo’s two-out single up the middle and getting on base three more times.

There was the designated hitter Soler – a young player who looked like he might get lost in the shuffle on an uber-team – smacking an RBI single past diving Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons for a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning.

There was Miguel Montero – a two-time All-Star catcher hitting in the eighth spot – blasting a two-run homer to put the game out of reach in the sixth inning.

“The way we grinded at-bats today is the winning formula,” Rizzo said.

[SHOP: Gear up for the 2016 season, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs are too deep and too talented to not be thinking about making history and unleashing the biggest party Chicago has ever seen. At the end of the night, you could hear the fans singing “Go Cubs Go” as they headed out toward the parking lots.

“Any time you don’t win the World Series, there’s some degree of disappointment,” Epstein said. “The expectations thing – I know it can kind of create the subtext that hangs over the club with every two-game losing streak or every game that goes wrong.

“Or every injury – people try to put it in the context of the ultimate goal of the World Series. But the reality is that’s not how we feel internally. We know it’s a grind. We know it’s a process. We know what we’re shooting for. We’re here to win the World Series.

“But you don’t think about that on a daily basis. You think about the challenges being presented to you, how you can overcome that, coming together as a team and an organization and working your tail off to move forward. That’s what drives us.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.