MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Ivy League: Cubs exude higher yearning

'We're embracing the target,' Maddon says

Ivy League: Cubs exude higher yearning

MESA, Ariz. -- Maybe the coolest thing about these Chicago Cubs is that they understand -- and embrace -- that they've got a chance to be part of something special.

"Every team seems to exude optimism at this time of the year, but it's extremely palpable here," said Jake Arrieta, the 2015 National League Cy Young Award winner. "You can feel it."

The Cubs aren't just good. Baseball has lots of good teams, and plenty of teams with reasonable postseason expectations. These Cubs might be scary good. That's the difference. They're young and talented and have no apparent weakness.

No use ducking what everyone knows to be true, right, Joe Maddon?

"We're embracing the target," the Cubs' manager said. "That's where we're going with this whole thing. Sometimes expectations and pressure are actually positive words. That means there's the opportunity to do something very good."

Bryant on his offseason, 2016

Something was awakened around Wrigley Field last summer when the Cubs won 97 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 2008. There was a magical atmosphere around the old ballpark, with every game feeling like a big event.

That team was the culmination of four years of smart work by Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and the staff he assembled. He accumulated talent at every level, made smart trades and then, finally, hired Maddon after the 2014 season to make it all work.

This offseason appears to have been the finishing touch, as Epstein added three impact players: center fielder Jason Heyward, second baseman Ben Zobrist and right-hander John Lackey.

Go ahead and take a long look at these Cubs, and if you can find a real weakness -- or a reason not to believe in them -- you're probably nitpicking.

"It's an exciting time here," veteran catcher David Ross said. "The hype is what it is. I don't know why you wouldn't hype this club. It's a talented group."

Cubs boast dominant infield

On Wednesday, Maddon will see his new Cubs on the field for the first time. Before they leave the clubhouse, he will tell them to focus on the process -- that is, don't sweat the small stuff, enjoy the journey, etc.

"We have a lot of young players that get it and a lot of veteran players who are going to pass the message along," Maddon said. "I feel good about what's going on with us right now, and I'm even more optimistic about the future."

Their foundation is a rotation that begins with Arrieta, Jon Lester and Lackey and a lineup with Heyward and Zobrist possibly at the top and Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant in the middle.

The Cubs were only 15th in the Majors in runs in 2015, in part, because they led the league in strikeouts. Zobrist and Heyward should change that dynamic since both have career OBPs north of .350.

To place them in front of Rizzo and Bryant, who combined for 57 home runs in 2015, could create an offensive monster.

On paper, it's nearly a perfect team.

"We don't want it to go too fast," Rizzo said. "We've got work to do. This is the time of the year where everyone in every organization is excited. The belief here is a lot higher, but we have a lot of work to do just in Spring Training to get to where we want to be in April."

Rizzo on team building bonds

Heyward saw the other side of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry while playing for St. Louis in 2015. He turned down offers from, among others, the Cards, to join the party at Wrigley.

"I was telling some of these guys here that there's an awareness of a 97-win season going forward," Heyward said. "Teams are going to get up to play us, and that's going to be a lot of fun. It's a great environment for that."

No one feels this vibe more than Arrieta. His trade from the Orioles to the Cubs in 2013 has turned out to be a blessing. Once a great prospect, Arrieta defines greatness after a 229-inning season that included 22 victories and a 1.77 ERA. He allowed four earned runs in his last 12 starts. Along the way, Cubs fans began to see something special was happening, and Arrieta paused to soak it all in and understand how lucky he was to be a part of the whole thing.

Outlook: Arrieta, SP, CHC

"I feel humbled almost on a daily basis with what I'm able to be a part of and looking where I've come from," he said. "I don't ever take it for granted. Being around so many good people. It starts with ownership and the people they've brought on board. There's quality individuals here. That's what Joe talks about all the time -- the quality of individual we have in this organization. It's an aspect that makes us all work really well together."

Arrieta has sensed last season's magic continuing in watching how the new guys have meshed into the clubhouse.

"It's incredible to watch," he said. "You don't see it very often like this. This is exciting to be able to be part of."

And something even better could be ahead.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.