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.”
[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]
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.”