The Cubs, Konerko and the game of expectations

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The Cubs, Konerko and the game of expectations

MESA, Ariz. Paul Konerko is a cerebral player who speaks in full paragraphs, but one line stood out: This could be a very successful year without making the playoffs.

It doesnt really matter if the White Sox are All In or not, but the captains words went out into the echo chamber. Just like in political primaries, its all about managing expectations.

After a winter spent looking toward the future, the Cubs have changed the narrative in Arizona. New president Theo Epstein, first-year manager Dale Sveum and Pacific Coast League MVP Bryan LaHair have essentially said the same thing: This is a team that can win the World Series.

Perhaps the Cubs could be looked at in a different light with Wednesdays reports that Major League Baseball and the players union are getting close to adding an extra wild card in each league.

But in listening to people around the team the past two weeks, you get the sense that things could immediately get better in 2012, not just in some hazy distant future where theyre selling The Cubs Way books and Theo-logy T-shirts out of the Triangle buildingMcDonalds lot on Clark Street.

Privately, one player admitted that the Cubs are in a great position, simply because they can play loose and surprise everyone. If theyre bad, well, no one expected them to do anything anyway.

Several have said this is a team that will play for each other, that a clubhouse without Carlos Zambrano will be a better place and a distraction-free zone.

They point to how the Tampa Bay Rays have shocked the world. They remind you that no one expected the Cincinnati Reds to win the division in 2010, or the Arizona Diamondbacks to go from worst-to-first last season.

Rebuilding is one of those terms that the media uses, but every year you come to play to win, new outfielder David DeJesus said. Baseballs one of those things that if everyone comes together (and) fights for the same thing, it makes for a fun year. Who knows what can happen out there?

To be clear, Mike Quade promised to drive home fundamentals last year. And Lou Piniella didnt enter the Hall of Fame discussion by stressing sloppy, careless play.

But maybe some of the details stick this time. Between Sveum and his new coaches Jamie Quirk (bench), Chris Bosio (pitching) and Dave McKay (first base) they have 101 combined seasons of experience as a major-league player or coach.

The Cubs also feel like they will have a credible starting pitcher on the mound every night, no matter who grabs the final two spots, and even if injuries hit the rotation again.

Jeff Samardzija who believes he belongs in the rotation understands how the hype can get out of control, as both a Chicago guy and a former Notre Dame football star. Hes probably in the minority, but he actually thought the Epstein coverage wasnt over-the-top.

I feel like everybody had their heads on straight, Samardzija said. We need to understand as Cubs players and Cubs fans (what) we need to set our sights on. Saying that were going to win the World Series thats cool and thats all fun. But we need to look at having a strong start the first month of the season. (We) need to be clean early.

That way the summer rolls around and were in position to be battling to get an opportunity to make the playoffs and go on from there. We (definitely have) the guys (and) the personalities to do it. We just need to take it one step at a time.

You can wonder how some of these sensible, incremental moves would have been received on Chicagos airwaves if Jim Hendry had made them, and just how patient the fans will really be with Epsteins team after a couple of losing streaks.

The track record these guys have is proven, so theyll have some patience if there are some growing pains, utility man Jeff Baker said. (But) I dont think that learning curve or that window of having to be patient is going to be as big as people think. I know a lot of people are writing us off for this year.

I dont want to say not giving us respect, because we have to earn it. But you never know what can happen. I played on some teams in Colorado where we werent expected to do anything but finish dead last. Its amazing what happens when you get 25 guys pulling on the same end of the rope, whether youre the best (or) the worst player on the team.

A lot of things can happen from doing the little things, running the balls out. I know its a clich and everyone says that, but it really can change.

There is a lot of time to kill here, with media personalities taking pictures of other media personalities taking pictures of spring training, and then posting it on Twitter.

Its all just noise now, something to fill the air space until April 5 at Wrigley Field. Its a brutal schedule, 162 games in 182 days, with the blur of constant travel. This game will find you out.

Whats the point of playing if people are just going to decide where you finish? pitcher Ryan Dempster said. We can talk about everything in the world, but at the end of the day we got to do it out on the field.

Saturday on CSN: Kyle Hendricks, Cubs face Reds

Saturday on CSN: Kyle Hendricks, Cubs face Reds

The Cubs face off against the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday, and you can catch all the cation on CSN. Coverage begins at 3:00 p.m.

Starting pitching matchup: Kyle Hendricks vs. Robert Stephenson

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World Series thank-yous follow Kris Bryant to Las Vegas

World Series thank-yous follow Kris Bryant to Las Vegas

MESA, Ariz. – Kris Bryant didn’t need to pose for a Crate & Barrel billboard in Wrigleyville or walk a goat around a Bed Bath & Beyond commercial shoot. Cub fans just kept sending him free stuff.

The wedding gifts actually shipped to his parents’ house in Las Vegas, where he honed the swing that landed him on a new Sports Illustrated cover that asked: “How Perfect is Kris Bryant?”   

This happens when you mention your registries on a late-night show with another Vegas guy (Jimmy Kimmel) after leading an iconic franchise to its first World Series title in 108 years.        

So Bryant will be the center of attention in Sin City this weekend when the Cubs play two split-squad games against the Cincinnati Reds. But that spotlight will pretty much follow the National League’s reigning MVP wherever he goes. 

At least this gives Bryant a chance to chill at the pool and organize the house he moved into in January. 

“My mom just kept throwing stuff in my car: ‘Here, take it!’” Bryant said. “Opening all those boxes, I can’t believe how many presents we got from fans. It was unbelievable. Jess is going to have to write all the thank-you notes. I’m just signing my name on them. You have literally like 700 thank-you notes to write.

“I said: ‘You need to just go get the generic thank-you.’ She’s like: ‘No, they took the time out of their day to buy us a present.’ This is going to take her the whole year. So if there’s anybody out there that’s waiting for one…”    

The wait is finally over for generations of Cub fans. Spring training will always have a “Groundhog Day” element to it. But this camp – with no major injuries so far or real roster intrigue or truly wacky stunts – has felt different. As the players get ready for a new season – one without 1908 looming over everything – they can’t escape what they did. 

“Every day something reminds me of it,” said Kyle Hendricks, who will start Saturday in Las Vegas. “Even going to throw in these spring games, when they announce your name and the whole crowd erupts because of the World Series. That wasn’t happening last year. 

“Little things like that make me notice. Something every day is brought to my attention, so it’s still getting used to that part.”  

The Cubs insist there won’t be a hangover effect in 2017, believing that this young group is too talented and too focused to get derailed by distractions and overconfidence. But the Cubs could go 0-162 this season and Bryant would still probably be breaking down boxes for recycling.   

“It’s funny,” Bryant said. “We just put cameras on my house for security and I’ll just look at it sometimes. I’ll randomly see my mom just unloading boxes. I’m like: ‘Mom, what’s going on? Are we getting more stuff?’ She’s like: ‘Yeah, we keep getting more boxes.’”