MESA, Ariz. — Now what? Ryan Dempster believes these Cubs are young enough, hungry enough and talented enough to become the first group to win back-to-back World Series since the three-peat New York Yankees built a dynasty with titles in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000.
But Dempster already understands the expectations at Wrigley Field this season, especially after pitching on disappointing Cubs teams that got swept out of the playoffs and working as a special assistant in Theo Epstein's front office.
"Nothing can top it," Dempster said. "You can win 162 games and sweep everybody in the playoffs and it won't be as exciting for people, other than maybe the guys playing it."
That's why Jon Lester isn't putting up the "Mission Accomplished" banner at his locker, even though the Cubs had the parade down Michigan Avenue in mind when they gave him the biggest contract in franchise history at the time. Dempster — who also earned a World Series ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox — had given Lester a scouting report as the Cubs went all-out in their pursuit of the big-game lefty.
There are still four years left on Lester's $155 million megadeal. It has been less than five months since the Cubs finally won the World Series and unleashed an epic celebration.
"Now the hard part is you don't get complacent," Lester said Wednesday after throwing six innings against an Oakland A's minor-league squad at the Sloan Park complex. "I talk about these young guys — that's where that helps. Even though you've accomplished things personally, you still want these guys to accomplish things.
"That's where that drive still gets you. You don't want to let your teammates down. You still want to be accountable for what you do. And that means showing up and doing your work in between starts and in the offseason."
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Lester believed so much in Epstein's vision, the pipeline of talent about to burst and the lure of Chicago that he signed with a last-place team. The Cubs needed a symbol to show they were serious about winning, a clubhouse tone-setter and an anchor for their rotation.
A new comfort level in Year 2 of that contract helped explain how Lester performed as an All Star, a Cy Young Award finalist and the National League Championship Series co-MVP. But Lester wants to make sure that the Cubs don't get too comfortable — or feel like they're playing with house money.
"You enjoy that, you learn from it," Lester said. "The biggest thing is not getting complacent with yourself and with your teammates. That's what drives me, making sure I'm prepared to pitch.
"I'm called upon every five days, and I have to be there. That's where that goal of 30 starts and 200 innings comes into play. I feel like if I do that, then I've done my job, for my teammates and this organization.
"The championships and the World Series — that's stuff you can't predict. It's stuff you strive to do every single year. So that's all we're going to focus on again. Our team goal again is to win a World Series."