Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."

Between Cubs' victory lap and Hall of Fame vote, Sammy Sosa barely staying in the picture

Between Cubs' victory lap and Hall of Fame vote, Sammy Sosa barely staying in the picture

Sammy Sosa has stayed so far off the radar that his long-running absence from Cubs Convention didn't even come up during last weekend's Q&A session with ownership.

And the Cubs can't go viral all the time and dominate every offseason news cycle, with the National Baseball Hall of Fame revealing the election results on Wednesday and welcoming Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez as part of its 2017 class.

But it's become out of sight, out of mind for Sosa, who barely crossed the 5-percent threshold (8.6) needed to remain on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot for another year.

Sosa — a seven-time All Star, 1998 National League MVP and the franchise's all-time leader with 545 home runs (and 609 overall) — hadn't gained any traction at all during his first four years under BBWAA consideration, hovering between 12.5 and 6.6 percent.

It's complicated with Sosa, a diva personality who experienced a dramatic late-career renaissance and got named in a New York Times report that exposed him as one of the players who tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2003 (during what was supposed to be an anonymous survey).

The Cubs have undergone a complete makeover since Sosa walked out in 2004, leaving him without many allies in the organization. It's nothing personal, but in the past the Ricketts family has hinted that Sosa could mend certain fences and fill in some of the blanks he once left open during an unconvincing performance in front of Congress.

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The Cubs brought Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ryne Sandberg to meet President Barack Obama during their Martin Luther King Jr. Day visit to the White House and keep adding former players to the front office. It's awkward after a World Series run where so many alumni showed up to do TV work, throw first pitches, spray champagne or simply watch a rare playoff game at Wrigley Field.

— If Sosa's looking for a roadmap, Manny Ramirez did his penance and cooperated with Major League Baseball to the point where Cubs president Theo Epstein shockingly hired him as a Triple-A Iowa player/coach in the middle of the 2014 season, something that would have been unthinkable during their clashes with the Boston Red Sox.

As a hitting consultant, Ramirez took a come-and-go-as-you-please arrangement, becoming a national story during the 2015 playoffs but largely staying away from the 2016 championship team, perhaps gearing up for his independent-ball comeback in Japan this year. Even after failing multiple drug tests, one of the greatest right-handed hitters of his generation still finished at 23.8 percent in his first year on the BBWAA ballot.

— Lee Smith (34.2 percent) — a drafted-and-developed Cub and the franchise's all-time leader with 180 saves — didn't come close in his 15th and final time on the BBWAA ballot. Smith had been grandfathered when the Hall of Fame narrowed the eligibility window to 10 years, possibly trying to squeeze Steroid Era symbols like Roger Clemens (54.1 percent) and Barry Bonds (53.8 percent).

— This will make Cub fans feel old: Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano are Hall of Fame-eligible for the first time in 2018, when based off this year's returns Trevor Hoffman (74) and Vladimir Guerrero (71.7) should be building momentum toward the 75 percent needed for induction into Cooperstown.

Jon Lester explains absence from Cubs' White House trip: 'Absolutely nothing political'

Jon Lester explains absence from Cubs' White House trip: 'Absolutely nothing political'

Jon Lester didn't make any sort of statement by missing Monday's White House trip with his Cubs teammates. But at a polarizing moment in a divided country, a high-profile player on a World Series team felt the need to respond on social media and explain his absence from the championship ceremony. 

President Barack Obama name-checked Lester during his East Room speech – both for his spectacular pitching performance and beat-cancer charitable initiatives – as the Cubs continued their victory tour off the franchise's first World Series title since Theodore Roosevelt lived in the White House.

Lester stood behind Obama when the 2013 Boston Red Sox were honored on the South Lawn. During that 2014 ceremony, Lester stood next to John Lackey, another Cub who missed this Washington trip. Lester also toured George W. Bush's White House with Boston's 2007 championship team.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day – and with the specter of Donald Trump's inauguration looming – Obama used his administration's final official White House event to draw a direct line between him and Jackie Robinson and highlight the connective power of sports.

"The best part was the president talking about how sports brings people together," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, "how no matter what's going on in this country and the world, three or four hours of any one particular game can just rally so many people together." 

This team couldn't have created so much joy for generations of fans without Lester, who signed a $155 million contract with the last-place Cubs after the 2014 season, a transformational moment during the long rebuild that led to the White House trip that Obama never thought would happen.

"It was a thrill and an honor for all of us," team president Theo Epstein said. "It means so much more with his roots in Chicago and his final days in office. It couldn't have worked out any better. It's something we'll all remember for our whole lives."