Joe Maddon’s new normal for Cubs: A team people love to hate?

Joe Maddon’s new normal for Cubs: A team people love to hate?

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs destroyed that “Lovable Loser” image years ago, no longer running the team like a mom-and-pop operation, squeezing the local government here for a brand-new spring-training facility and battling the rooftops, small businesses and City Hall for control of Wrigleyville.

A sleeping-giant franchise made the home-run hires, bringing in a guitar-playing, Ivy League-educated, future Hall of Fame executive to run baseball operations. A groovy, unconventional manager who loves the cameras and hates baseball’s unwritten rules would lead the team.

The players wouldn’t have to act like robots, with Theo Epstein’s culture and Joe Maddon’s attitude allowing them to express their individual personalities, show their emotions and design a Party Room inside Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art clubhouse.

It’s too early to really feel the backlash — less than 48 hours before the defending World Series champs hold their first full-squad workout in Arizona — but the Cubs can sort of see it coming.

“I don’t know if the word’s ‘hated,’” Maddon said Thursday at the Sloan Park complex. But making a sense of swagger or arrogance part of this team’s identity? That’s Cub.

“It’s all about that,” Maddon said. “Just go back in history. I’ve often talked about the Dodgers when I came up in the minor leagues (with the Angels). Their uniforms were whiter than everybody else’s. They thought they were better than everybody else. And then they went out and they won all the time.

“I hated it, but I liked it at the same time. I think the Yankees have developed that kind of a culture. (With) teams that win — whether you even want to talk about the Patriots in football — it’s part of it.

“It’s not that you feel as though you’re just going to show up and throw your gloves out there and you’re going to win. That’s not the point. You gain this confidence based on winning — and there’s something to be said for knowing how to win.”

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Within the last two seasons, the Cubs have won 200 games, five playoff rounds and the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908. There still seemed to be a level of overexcitement, at times, in dissecting Maddon’s Game 7 decisions. Flashy, stylish players like Javier Baez and Willson Contreras will inevitably upset baseball’s fun police at some point this year.

After appearing all over the late-night talk-show circuit this offseason, this group is also positioned to be the next-generation version of the ’85 Bears in terms of seemingly unlimited marketing potential.

“The target grows bigger and bigger on this team,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “Even though people are gunning for us, we expect to win. We intend to see everybody’s best every time we step in between the lines.

“Dealing with pressure, I think, is a good thing. It shows you care. It’s an opportunity for guys to shine in big situations, especially trying to repeat and redo what we did last year. It’s possible. It’s definitely doable with the group we have here.”

Love it or hate it, this is the new normal, the Cubs starring as Major League Baseball’s glamor team.

“It works both ways,” Maddon said. “You’re going to get the group that absolutely jumps on the bandwagon, too. There’s a part of the world that wants to be attached to a winner. By the same token, there’s that group that’s always looking for somebody to fail.

“Regardless of the camp somebody may be in, for me, it’s about us, taking care of what we want to do, how we want to do it daily and creating the culture that we want. And then let people decide where they want to be with that.

“But I know (about) the genuine nature of our guys, the authentic nature of our players and their work ethic. I know we know what we’re all about — and that’s really what matters.”

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.