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


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.”

Ian Happ trying to force his way into Cubs second base picture

Ian Happ trying to force his way into Cubs second base picture

MESA, Ariz. — Don't write the obituary on Ian Happ's career as a second baseman just yet.

The versatile young player started 28 games at second base during his rookie year in 2017, but did not see a start in 2018 and played just 3 innings at the position the entire season.

Thats not a trend that typically bodes well for Happ's future at second base.

But it's not necessarily a trend that will continue.

After last season ended, Happ had a conversation with Maddon and was direct: He wants to be included in the second base picture.

"We were in contact several times," Maddon said Sunday. "One of the things I really like about Ian is that he is very lucid and transparent regarding what he's thinking and he brought that to my attention."

Happ has been clinging to his desire to play second base in much the same way Kyle Schwarber passionately stuck by his love for being a catcher. But as the Schwarber situation proved, you need more than just passion (though, undoubtedly, Schwarber's major knee injury in 2016 and that entire lost year of development played a factor in his scenario).

The Cubs drafted Happ with the 9th overall pick in 2015 out of the University of Cincinnati, where he spent time in both the infield and outfield. Coming out of college, there were concerns about Happ's ability to stick in the infield, but he started more games at second base (107) than he did in the outfield (30) over his 3 years in the minor-league system.

Last spring, there was a push for Happ as a primary outfielder for several reasons: 1) it was the position he was most likely going to end up at long-term and 2) the Cubs had more playing time available in the outfield with Jon Jay departing and the combination of Ben Zobrist and Javy Baez dominating time at second base.

This spring, things are quite a bit different. Baez will shift over to shortstop for at least the first month of the season and the second base picture is filled with a bunch of players (Zobrist, Daniel Descalso, David Bote) who can also play a host of other positions. (Nobody knows yet how Addison Russell fits into the picture if he returns from suspension.)

If Happ wanted another shot at proving his mettle at second base, now is as good a time as any.

But it won't be easy. Zobrist and Descalso have much more experience at the position and Bote is a natural second baseman who has already impressed the Cubs with his infield defense in his brief big-league career.

The switch-hitting Happ, meanwhile, still figures to see a good amount of playing time in the outfield as a potential platoon option to Jason Heyward (right field), Albert Almora Jr. (center field) and Kyle Schwarber (left field). Happ will also back up the corner infield spots as he did last year.

"He made it clear to me he wants to be considered to play second base," Maddon said. "...He wants for me and us to know that he'll do whatever it takes to get in the lineup. If we're facing a lefty or whatever and he wants in the lineup or a righty and the outfield's set up a certain way, he knows there might be an option somewhere else to play if we want to move it around or just give somebody a day off. He's smart. It's just about him wanting to get into the lineup."

Happ has only played 263.1 innings at second base in the majors and the Cubs would like to see him grow as a defender, though they understand he needs reps to continue to develop.

"When you watch him, he's still a work in progress when it comes to being — for lack of a better term — a little bit more smooth, but then again, he's effective," Maddon said. "I've seen some really good defenders that aren't necessarily this Spalding guy, but they don't make mistakes. Probably just [improving his] lateral range, going to his right as much as anything, backhanding, throwing that ball. He's got a really strong arm; he can complete a double play.

"It's just a nuance — the lateral movement nuance of the position. But he's smart — he knows where to be, he knows where cutoffs and relays occur, he knows all that stuff. It's just like this repetitive thing, I would say for me in my mind's eye - going over [to the right] more smoothly to make that play would be something optimal for him.

"He's not the Spalding guy all the time, but he's pretty effective out there. I think it's just repetition."

The Cubs aren't guaranteeing Happ playing time at second base or anything like that. But at the very least, it appears they're open to giving him a legitimate shot this spring to potentially earn an opportunity in the regular season.

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Phillies reportedly willing to meet Bryce Harper's price tag

Phillies reportedly willing to meet Bryce Harper's price tag

MESA, Ariz. — We may finally be nearing a resolution in the Bryce Harper free agency saga at just the right time.

Spring training begins in earnest Monday with position players officially reporting around the league and Harper may not be far behind.

USA TODAY's Bob Nightengale reported Sunday evening the Philadelphia Phillies are reportedly willing to meet Harper's price tag and give him more than the $300 million, 10-year deal the Washington Nationals offered before the season ended:

Keep in mind, Nightengale is not reporting a done deal and the key word is Harper "appears" to have found a team willing to meet his price tag in the Phillies.

But this is one of those "big, if true" situations that portends a potential conclusion to Harper's 3.5-month free agency tour.

The Cubs ruled themselves out of the Harper Sweepstakes back at the very beginning of the offseason due to a bloated payroll for 2019 and a budget that doesn't have the room for the salary Harper is about to make.

The Phillies have been rumored to be in on Harper from Day 1 and owner John Middleton famously said his team may spend "stupid" money this winter. They've been very aggressive this offseason trying to build around a young core and improve upon thhe 80 wins they put up a season ago.

The Phillies have already signed Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson and traded for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto in the last couple months while also giving ace Aaron Nola a long-term extension.

Adding Harper to the mix would be a huge boost to the Phillies' chances in what is shaping up to be a very competitive National League East.

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