Cubs will be forced out of their comfort zone

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Cubs will be forced out of their comfort zone

MESA, Ariz. Alfonso Soriano had nearly lost track: This is what? Number three?

Soriano had a smile on his face he usually does but hes on his third manager since signing that 136 million contract, a different one in each of the last three years.

Whether its Soriano expecting everyone to give 100 percent now, or chairman Tom Ricketts saying people are working a little harder, its not difficult to read between the lines.

This offseason blew up nearly every assumption you could make about the Cubs organization. Ricketts found his voice as an owner and hired Theo Epstein to run baseball operations.

Epstein didnt look for a celebrity manager and hired Dale Sveum, who doesnt seem to care at all about the television cameras. The Cubs could sit on the sidelines while Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder got their megadeals and hand the first-base job to a Pacific Coast League MVP (Bryan LaHair).

Carlos Zambrano and Milton Bradley arent taking up all the oxygen in the room. This front office traded away several top picks who were supposed to be part of the future (Andrew Cashner, Tyler Colvin, DJ LeMahieu), and wont be as loyal to certain veterans in the clubhouse.

The Cubs are starting over. Again.

Its a breath of fresh air, utility man Jeff Baker said. Sometimes I felt like there was a comfort zone people got in and guys never really got out of that comfort zone. I think a lot of guys are going to be more on edge, which I think is a good thing.

Baker was acquired from the Colorado Rockies on July 2, 2009, when Aramis Ramirez was on the disabled list and first place was still within reach (2 12 games out by days end). So Baker has seen the crash up close, and perhaps the first steps out of it.

Everyone has a clean slate, whether youve got 10 years in the league or you got zero days, Baker said. You know everyones going to be treated the same. Thats been made very clear and its about performance and production. I think a lot of guys can appreciate that. What you see is what you get. Players respect that.

Reliever James Russell made his big-league debut on Opening Day 2010 in Atlanta. Zambrano got four outs in a 16-5 loss to the Braves. A historian would note that the Cubs had never before allowed that many runs in an opener, the most since a 15-3 loss to the New York Gothams in 1884, when they were called the Chicago White Stockings.

So Russell has seen Lou Piniella in tears, the rise and fall of Mike Quade and all the enthusiasm generated by the Epstein hire.

Its kind of crazy, Russell said. Youre a rookie and you think everythings perfect and then all of a sudden Lou had his situation and had to leave. (Then) we get Q and thought everything was going to be great. Of course, that didnt really pan out, so now maybe third times the charm.

Russell loved playing for Piniella: Its a privilege playing for a guy thats going to be in the Hall of Fame. And Russell had a good relationship with Quade: It was just sad to see how everything kind of unfolded, but it might have worked out for the better.

Camp Sveum is all about the details. There is the yellow string running in front of the catchers during bullpen sessions, so the pitchers focus on that part of the strike zone. There are multiple cameras filming it behind the fence.

There are blue marks on the bases to show where your foot should touch. There are tape marks on the screen where outfielders make practice throws, almost a box that creates a target.

Every teams going to win 60 games and lose 60 games, Sveum said. Whatever happens those other 42 games depends on how you run the bases, how you play fundamentally, how you catch the ball, how you throw strikes. All these things come into play.

Its hard to imagine another teardown or change in philosophy anytime soon. Thats what lured Epstein from the Red Sox, a chance to build another organization in his image. No one should get too comfortable.

Hes just a straight shooter. Hes going to tell you like it is, third baseman Ian Stewart said. Our goal is to win the World Series and really nothing less. Its not about winning a wild card or getting to the playoffs. We want to win the whole thing, similar to what he did in Boston, and theres no reason why we cant do it here.

Cubs: Ben Zobrist's path back to October and a possible three-peat

Cubs: Ben Zobrist's path back to October and a possible three-peat

MESA, Ariz. – Ben Zobrist is focused on a personal three-peat, not worrying about a changing of the guard or any awkward moments with Javier Baez. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has repeatedly said that Zobrist will be the primary second baseman and another "Javy Being Javy" highlight reel from the World Baseball Classic won't change that thinking right now.

Zobrist sees the big picture better than almost anyone else in the clubhouse after going undrafted out of Eureka High School in downstate Illinois, perfecting the super-utility role Maddon envisioned with the Tampa Bay Rays and helping transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into World Series champions.

While Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year, bursting onto the scene as the National League Championship co-MVP, Zobrist became the World Series MVP with his clutch hitting and still has three seasons left on his $56 million contract.

Maddon didn't spare anyone's feelings during the playoffs, turning $184 million outfielder Jason Heyward into a part-time player, giving a quick hook to major-league ERA leader Kyle Hendricks and shunning relievers not named Aroldis Chapman.

"We haven't had an extended conversation about it," Zobrist said. "But at the beginning of spring, we talked about it. I think his words were: ‘I really think rest is the next improvement in player performance.' Learning what rest means, what good rest is for players and what kind of rest certain players need versus others.

"That doesn't necessarily mean just because you're 35. It could mean you're 25 and you still got to take care of yourself and make sure you're getting the proper rest. Because we have such a deep team, he's able to do that at any given point in time and still feel confident about the team we have on the field.

"It's a good problem to have when you have really good players not playing and sitting on the bench. We had that all last year and we had guys accept their role and just buy into the team concept.

"The makeup of this team is the same, basically. We've got a few new guys and they've got the same mindset, so I anticipate more of the same."

Injuries are one variable that prevents Maddon from getting too stressed out about dividing the playing time over 162 games while the NCAA tournament is still going. Zobrist's stiff neck felt good enough to hit leadoff and play right field in Tuesday afternoon's 10-7 loss to the San Francisco Giants, seeing his first Cactus League action since March 19.

Zobrist plans to play again on Wednesday in Mesa and catch up with more at-bats on the minor-league side of the complex. Assuming Zobrist and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (stiff back) are ready for Opening Night, Baez will be an NLCS MVP, all-WBC talent waiting for the right matchup or break in the schedule or to sub in as a defensive replacement.

"It's pretty impressive, looking around at the young talent in this clubhouse," Zobrist said. "All throughout spring training, we've seen there's definitely other talent coming, so this team is poised to have a good, long run of success. If everybody stays healthy and we stay together, this is a very good team.

"The biggest thing that I go into the season with this year is we have to be healthy and we have to make sure that we don't relax too much. That's the temptation for teams that just won, to go: OK, well, we're tired, because we had a long season last year and you kind of just assume things are going to go as well as they did.

"You can't assume anything. No matter how good this team is, we have to still go out and execute and perform – and that's going to determine where we are in the standings."

In real time, as the Cubs experienced their lowest moments during last year's regular season, Zobrist correctly pointed out the exhaustion factor while the team played 24 days in a row, losing 15 of their last 21 games before the All-Star break.

What looks like overwhelming depth on paper should help the 2017 Cubs survive and advance into October.

"It's huge," Zobrist said. "It's up and down the lineup on offense. It's all throughout the pitching staff and on the defensive side. It's so deep that you can absorb a little bit of injury here and there.

"With that being said, there are certain guys that you just don't want to lose. So we got to protect everybody. We got to protect our horses – both on the mound and in the lineup – and just make sure that we have our key cogs in there. And if we do, we're as good, if not better, than anybody out there."

Cubs return Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to Yankees as roster comes into focus

Cubs return Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to Yankees as roster comes into focus

MESA, Ariz. - Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella - and a combination of right/left, outfield/infield and contractual considerations - appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

The Cubs returned Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to the New York Yankees on Tuesday and assigned injured non-roster players Jemile Weeks and Chris Dominguez to minor-league camp. That left 27 players still technically in the mix, though depth catcher Carlos Corporan isn't really part of that conversation.

The projected eight-man bullpen would look like this: Wade Davis; Koji Uehara; Pedro Strop; Hector Rondon; Carl Edwards Jr.; Justin Grimm; and lefties Mike Montgomery and Brian Duensing.

Szczur, who is out of minor-league options, could be a good fourth outfielder on a team that didn't have so much depth and World Series expectations, making him a potential trade chip for pitching. La Stella offers infield insurance and a left-handed bat off the bench.