World Series

Albert Almora, Cubs won't settle for anything less than another World Series title

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USA Today

Albert Almora, Cubs won't settle for anything less than another World Series title

With Major League Baseball players getting ready for the 2018 season in Arizona and Florida, this is the time that predictions start to grab the headlines. While the defending world champion Houston Astros are everybody's choice as the clear favorite, the 2016 world champion Cubs are acting like Ricky Bobby from the movie Talladega Nights, living by the motto "If you ain't first you're last." 

The 2016 season took so much out of the team that the 2017 season began in the throes of a World Series hangover. The Cubs struggled out of the gate and spent the first half of the season trying to stay in the National League Central race. Despite a sub-.500 record at the All Star break and a 5 1/2 game deficit to the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cubs steadied themselves and won the division to advance to the National League Championship Series for the third consecutive season. However, 2017 never felt like a championship run was in the cards. When the Cubs were eliminated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games, no one was surprised and it almost felt like a sense of relief to those around the team.

After a very active offseason that saw the Cubs overhaul their pitching staff both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen, expectations are sky high. Las Vegas oddsmakers set the Cubs expected win total at 93 1/2 and multiple prognosticators see the Cubs as one of the favorites to win the World Series.

But do the players feel that way? Or are they simply embracing the mantra "One Batter, One Pitch, One Out at a Time?" Despite the one day at a time approach that most professional athletes employ, Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. exercises no such caution.

In fact, he believes that only one result is acceptable. 

"The expectation for this group is to win the World Series," Almora said. "We know the group in here can do it and we expect nothing but that. No matter how old or young we are, we have a great mix of players and we can do it. We've done it and our mindset is to do it again." 

So while so many in professional sports repeat the standard line that "we just play them one day at a time and let the chips fall where they may" one of the youngest members of the 2018 Cubs is all in on what he believes can be accomplished.

Chicago Cubs, 2018 World Series Champions. Almora likes how that sounds and he expects it to happen.

Looking back at just how lucky the Cubs were in the 2013 MLB Draft

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AP

Looking back at just how lucky the Cubs were in the 2013 MLB Draft

Revisionist history is one of the best parts of being a sports fan.

Looking back at how drafts went for each league, realizing what teams made mistakes and what teams got lucky is a modern-day American national pasttime.

The Cubs certainly deserve a lot of credit for drafting and developing Kris Bryant, but they also got really, really lucky, too. 

Thursday morning represented more proof of that.

Mark Appel — the former can't-miss pitching prospect selected right before the Cubs grabbed Bryant in 2013 — announced he will be stepping away from baseball at age 26.

If Appel never returns to the professional game, he will become just the third player ever to be selected No. 1 overall and not even reach the majors.

The Houston Astros chose to pass on Bryant, opting for Appel out of Stanford instead. At first, the move looked fine. Appel found himself among all the top prospect lists in the game for three straight seasons, but the numbers never matched that reputation.

Appel wound up making 37 starts at Triple-A, but posted a 4.82 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in those games. In his five-year minor-league career, the 6-foot-5 right-hander sported a gawdy 5.06 ERA.

He was traded from Houston to the Philadelphia Phillies before the 2016 season and even a change of scenery didn't help matters.

Still, things worked out just fine for the Astros, who will head into 2018 as the defending champs — which is even more impressive now after getting no help from their No. 1 overall pick five years ago.

Had the Astros gone with Bryant first overall, it obviously would've changed the landscape of both franchises. It's hard to even envision the Cubs without Kris Bryant let alone trying to think how the Cubs would've ended the longest championship drought in American sports history.

If Bryant was the consensus first pick, would the Cubs — selecting second — have gone with Appel or Jon Gray? At the time, the three players were seen as clear frontrunners. Gray — selected third by the Rockies — has emerged as a budding ace in Colorado and could draw the Opening Day start in 2018.

The rest of the 2013 first round didn't fare much better than the Astros, so the Cubs were also lucky just to be choosing second overall:

After Gray, the next nine players selected in 2013 have combined for just -0.1 WAR. Later in the first round, only Tim Anderson (17th), Aaron Judge (32nd), Sean Manaea (34th) and Corey Knebel (39th) have provided any notable impact for their big-league club to date.

Theo Epstein's front office did so many things right to get to this point of sustained success, but they also needed quite a bit of luck along the way and they were never more fortunate than the 2013 MLB Draft.

Ben Zobrist adjusting to new normal with Cubs

Ben Zobrist adjusting to new normal with Cubs

It's a brand new world for Ben Zobrist.

At least from where he's sitting.

For the last two years, Zobrist has been a go-to guy in the Cubs locker room for teammates and media members alike. He always kept things real, providing thoughtful answers and advice.

Zobrist predicted how tough the Los Angeles Dodgers pitching would be on the Cubs' young lineup and sure enough, the last two falls provided the proof in consecutive National League Championship Series.

This is the guy who got the biggest hit in Cubs history and won back-to-back World Series in 2015-16.

Yet he still doesn't really think of himself as a leader or the Gandalf of the locker room with all the answers.

"I have played a lot of games in the big leagues, but I have by no means got it all figured out. I don't think anyone ever will," Zobrist said recently in a sit-down interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "This game has a way of continuing to challenge us to grow no matter what your age is.

"So I still have a long ways to go and I really look forward to learning all the things I need to learn this year as a teammate and player on the field from all of the people around me."

Zobrist will be 37 on May 26 and is coming off the worst statistical season of his career, where he admitted he didn't truly feel healthy until the last week of the regular season.

Between back and wrist issues, aging and the typical wear-and-tear of playing into November the previous two seasons, 2017 was a constant struggle for Zobrist.

As the Cubs try to become the new MLB team with even-year magic, Zobrist's role on the field for the team is a true unknown.

How much will he play? When he does play, how effective will he be?

The answers will probably be in direct correlation — if he's effective, he'll play more — but that's not the only definition of his true value.

Gone are the days where the Cubs are counting on Zobrist to be a key cog in their offense. And if he does fill that role again, it's probably not good news for the team given the expectations surrounding Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and others lending offensive support to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

But Zobrist's impact on the 2018 Cubs will go far beyond the back of his baseball card.

Even if he doesn't think of himself as this leader or voice of reason, it's clear the Cubs' young position players view him as the baseball version of Dumbledore.

"He's there whenever I have a question," Addison Russell said. "But just seeing him go about his business in the clubhouse, it's a really cool thing to see.

"His work ethic is awesome — it's something I strive to be better with and have a better work routine. He does a few things here or there that I don't see a lot of people doing.

"He's an older player and he's still playing. So definitely picking a brain like that is beneficial for me."

Javy Baez echoed those sentiments.

"I used to go to his locker and talk about his routine," Baez said. "He was doing the same routine the whole year, from spring training. That's really impressive to watch and I know playing a lot of baseball and repititions, it's not easy. We've been talking a lot."