Something is different in Cubs’ camp this year. For the first time in recent memory, Chicago has a team that can reasonably be expected to win a World Championship when the book closes on 2016. If they don’t win a championship, in fact, it’ll be because something went wrong with a very good team (as it often does, and might yet for the Cubs), or because the playoffs are in large part a crapshoot, but not because the team never had much of a shot in the first place. The talent, for the first time in a while, is there, and for that the Cubs’ front office deserves a great deal of credit.
But with new achievements come new expectations, and that parallelism is playing out in Mesa this week.
The talent on the roster has the players excited. They won’t say so in public, of course, but they expect to win a championship in 2016. They know it’ll take effort, too, and that high expectations mean nothing if they’re not met with hard work. So they’re reporting weeks ahead of schedule, adding precious length to a season they already expect to run into November, and they’re working hard each day to put themselves in the best possible position to win now and later. Their minds are on nothing but the season ahead, the work they’re doing to prepare for it, and the hopes the team and the city of Chicago have for the season’s end. These expectations have given Joe Maddon a lot to think about:
“For me, it’s not about [batting practice] and throwing sides. These guys are good baseball players. They’re very good. The most important thing is for me to get them to start thinking properly. The other stuff will take care of itself. With good health and with repetition, the guys will play well this year. The only threat to us is us, and how we’re thinking. I want to make sure I address that, talk about it, get it out there and make sure the conversation is healthy and good. That, to me, is the critical component in Spring Training. I want us to think well.”
If you’re anything like me, you read that paragraph and you smile, ear to ear. Because the twin demons I think are most likely to take down the Cubs this year, if the Cubs go down this year, are these: overconfidence, on the one hand, and the crushing weight of high expectations, on the other. It’s not the roster’s talent that’ll get in the way (barring injury to a key player or two)—it’s what’s between the player’s ears. And that’s exactly what Joe Maddon is trying to look out for, starting right now.
Anthony Rizzo isn’t going to forget how to hit midway through the season. But as the months drag on, and if the wins pile up, he might get into his own head, worrying about the pressure of delivering a title to a town that’s long missed it. Jake Arrieta’s workload is being carefully managed, with buy-in from the man himself. But far more dangerous for Arrieta than a tired arm might be a descent into overconfidence—the belief that he can beat anybody, with any pitch. That might lead him to throw a letter-high fastball to Mike Trout on Opening Day, and it’s hard to imagine that having good results. On a broader level, the last thing you want is a plane-full of Cubs talking themselves into frenzied optimism if things are going well, or—if things trend the other way—that same plane silent with tense worry about the weight of what they’re trying to do. As always, you want to be somewhere in the middle.
Thankfully, the Cubs—at every level of the organization—are well aware of these risks. They’ve put an enormous amount of effort into keeping their players mentally strong and focused on the task at hand (see Leigh Coridan’s wonderful piece today on the same subject). And they have a man in the dugout—Joe Maddon—who’s working hard to help his team meet and manage expectations in a healthy and positive way. To the degree that these new and higher expectations can be managed, I’m certain that they are being managed by this front office.
But the thing is, that work isn’t new this year. The expectations for this season are new, and so are the stakes that go with them, but this team has been putting themselves in the best possible position to manage expectations since the day Joe Maddon took the reins, and even before that. Last spring training, it was “Respect 90″—do the little things right, and the big things will take care of themselves. By the middle of the season, the team had abjured batting practice before day games in favor of actually getting some sleep. And last October, with the lights of the baseball universe upon them, Maddon kept his team firmly rooted in the present, asking them instead to embrace the expectations and pressure of the postseason.
So when I hear Joe Maddon ask his team to “Embrace the Target,” I don’t hear him saying something radically new or different. I hear him putting a fresh spin on a message that’s been consistent throughout his tenure, and the tenure of the Cubs’ current front office, and I hear him keeping the focus where it needs to be: on the moment at hand. The Cubs’ leadership team deserves enormous credit for the work they’ve done in putting together a strong and talented roster. But as we praise them for that, let’s not forget the equally important work they’ve put into keeping those players ready to perform at the peak of their ability, even as expectations rise to meet them. If the Cubs’ 2016 season goes as the players and the fans hope, it’ll be in enormous part due to this largely unrecognized work.
Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports.