HAZLETON, Pa. – Not even Joe Maddon can talk his way around this. Not when the Cubs just dropped $272 million on Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. For a team that smashed all expectations by winning 97 games last season, there will now be nowhere to hide.
“Of course, we are the target,” Maddon said. “Of course, you are, so why deny that you are? You’re the target, OK? Embrace it. Seriously, embrace the target. And process it properly and move on. But to deny it? To say that’s not true? It is true.
“But that shouldn’t really alter the way we think. It shouldn’t alter our preparation. It shouldn’t alter anything except, I think, once you admit to it, then you kind of disarm it a bit. If you want to constantly push it back and say it’s not true, then you give it more power.”
Of course, this is exactly what Maddon signed up for when he scored a five-year, $25 million contract, a deal that immediately gave the franchise a new sense of swagger.
To be on the other side of the David vs. Goliath story after nine seasons managing the Tampa Bay Rays. To work at Wrigley Field and take advantage of everything that Chicago has to offer. To use the louder megaphone and bigger platform for his Hazleton Integration Project, the nonprofit organization staging “Thanksmas” this week in his old working-class neighborhood in Pennsylvania.
The national media already crowned the Cubs winners of the winter meetings by adding a big-game pitcher Maddon has compared to John Wayne (Lackey) and a Swiss Army knife that can hit anywhere in the lineup and play all over the field (Zobrist).
Now here comes the online headline from USA Today’s coverage of Tuesday’s press conference at Spiaggia on Michigan Avenue: “Jason Heyward gives Cubs the next great dynasty.”
“People are really going to be looking at us now,” Maddon said. “Of course, people are going to be predicting all these grandiose things for us. And that’s great, cool, because that probably means we are pretty good. But then how do you go about achieving those (things)? That’s why you can’t get caught up in this outcome society. You have to just really focus on today.”
Maddon exhaled while making his next point, which is pretty much the same thing he’s been saying since his “Hazleton Way” shot-and-a-beer press conference at The Cubby Bear on Nov. 3, 2014.
“And then when you do that,” Maddon said, “that pressure lightens up. Because all you got to do is win Monday. And then all you got to do is win Tuesday. And then you got to win on Wednesday. As opposed to trying to win 2016.
“I really believe a combination of me, the coaches, (sports psychologist) Ken Ravizza – all the people we have at our disposal – will be able to get that message out there.
“Believe me, man, I’m going to pound that home again. Because if we can really adopt that attitude – which I know we can – that’s our best way to really win eight more games next year.”
The last time the Cubs advanced to the National League Championship Series, Sports Illustrated responded by putting Kerry Wood on the cover of its 2004 baseball preview: “Hell Freezes Over: The Cubs Will Win the World Series.” That team won 89 games but finished in third place and missed the playoffs.
The last time the Cubs won 97 games, the team was still up for sale, the window to contend started to close and Milton Bradley poisoned the clubhouse during a miserable follow-up season in 2009.
The Cubs will need good health, good fortune and good chemistry in a division where the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates won’t be conceding anything. At a time when the New York Mets will be defending their pennant, the Washington Nationals are reloading and the NL West has the Arizona Diamondbacks jumping into the arms race between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.
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Jake Arrieta threw almost 250 innings – including three draining playoff starts – during his Cy Young Award campaign. Jon Lester will be 32 next season, or five years younger than Lackey.
That’s why Maddon appreciates team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer preparing for worst-case scenarios in the rotation with Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood.
Whether or not Addison Russell can stay healthy and play shortstop for seven months, the front office is also giving Maddon two potential super-utility guys in Zobrist and Javier Baez.
The message to young, middle-of-the-order stars like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber should be: Don’t get too comfortable.
Heyward certainly comes across as someone who gets it, but he will have to deal with the pressure of signing the biggest contract in franchise history (eight years, $184 million) and the transition from right to center at Wrigley Field.
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Forget “Do Simple Better.” It sounds like Maddon now has the perfect slogan for his next T-shirt idea: “Embrace The Target.”
“Regardless of how good we are on paper, theory and reality are two different things,” Maddon said. “We’re going to go through bad stretches next year, regardless of these beautiful names. We’re still going to go through problems. How do we react to them? And how do we keep those windows of failure to a minimum?
“Because it’s going to happen. It happens to everybody every year. So how do you process that? How do you get to the next moment that makes it better?”