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."

Jake Arrieta makes $15 million-plus deal with Cubs and knows free agency is coming

Jake Arrieta makes $15 million-plus deal with Cubs and knows free agency is coming

Cubs Convention might be the beginning of the end for Jake Arrieta in Chicago. As generations of fans swarmed into a downtown hotel to relive the 2016 highlights and see the World Series trophy, the business side of the game didn't shut down.
Arrieta knows the score after agreeing to a one-year, $15.6375 million contract that avoided an arbitration hearing before Friday's filing deadline and moved the Scott Boras client even closer to testing the open market.
"The timeline is kind of coming to an end, as far as leading up to free agency," Arrieta said at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. "I'm going to enjoy every moment of it. If something happens where an extension is possible, then we'll address that when it happens. But as of now, we got one more season as a Cub, and I'm really happy about that."
Arrieta has exceeded all expectations since that franchise-altering trade with the Baltimore Orioles, the Cubs giving him the time and the space to rediscover his natural talent and blossom from an inconsistent Triple-A guy into an All-Star pitcher.

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"I'll always feel a part of this organization for the rest of my life," Arrieta said, "because I came over here in '13 and turned my career around, won a Cy Young, threw a couple no-hitters, won a World Series. So that's going to be hard to top wherever I go, if I leave. 
"I'll feel a part of this city and the organization for a long time."     
Before an Opening Night performance that set the tone for the 2016 season – Arrieta allowed two hits across seven innings in a 9-0 win at Angel Stadium of Anaheim – Boras said: "Every Cy Young Award winner I know got a seven-year contract."   
Arrieta – who will turn 31 in spring training – also noted that he beat the $15.525 million Boras client Max Scherzer got in his final year in the arbitration system before landing a $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals. 
"As a player, you're told where you're going to play your whole career until free agency," Arrieta said. "So that's a nice aspect of it – to be able to decide for once where you want to go. But this is a pretty good place to play. There are some great cities out there, some good teams. But I'm not worried about that now. 
"I'm trying to be a good teammate and perform to the best of my ability for these guys for another season. And then we'll go from there."

Jake Arrieta explains post-election tweet and why he will miss White House trip with Cubs

Jake Arrieta explains post-election tweet and why he will miss White House trip with Cubs

The Cubs will visit the White House without one of their most recognizable players. But Jake Arrieta insisted he's not making another political statement by declining President Barack Obama's invitation to the World Series champs.

Arrieta revealed that he's dealing with family medical issues back home in Texas. His mother-in-law, Debbie, recently underwent brain surgery while his young son, Cooper, is scheduled for a dental procedure on Monday, when the Cubs will be honored in the Oval Office.

"I won't be on that trip," Arrieta said Friday as Cubs Convention opened at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. "I would like to. But I've got some other things I got to handle."

The day after a surreal, polarizing and stunning campaign ended, Arrieta posted a message on his Twitter account that has since been retweeted 27,000-plus times and liked more than 56,000 times: "Time for Hollywood to pony up and head for the border #illhelpyoupack #beatit."

Donald Trump has shown that Twitter outbursts, dog-whistle politics and a long track record of misogyny and xenophobic rhetoric won't necessarily stop you from winning the Electoral College vote. So Arrieta – an All-Star pitcher and Cy Young Award winner – shouldn't be worried about too much backlash from Cubs fans.

Arrieta – who's among the most thoughtful, eloquent and independent players in the clubhouse – said he didn't vote in this presidential election.

"People can interpret a tweet however they want," Arrieta said. "But I was simply calling out people that said they were going to leave the country if Trump was elected. It's not a pro-Trump tweet. It's not an anti-Hillary tweet. I don't care who the president is – I want whoever's president to do a good job.

"For people to decipher a tweet the way they want, they're allowed to do that. But my tweet was pretty simple and I thought was straightforward.

"People can believe I'm politically this way or that way. That's not the case. It's pretty simple, my political stance. I don't consider myself a Democrat or a Republican. I want a president who's going to do a good job. That's where I stand."

Arrieta was bothered by the reaction from ESPN analyst Keith Law, who responded over Twitter on Nov. 9: "candidates & politics aside, this reads to me as an anti-Semitic comment (and I'm not Jewish)."

"People were saying that I want people deported or I'm an anti-Semite," Arrieta said. "Why would I not like Jewish people, first of all? That doesn't make sense. Like Keith Law – I can't wait until I see him in person.

"I have Puerto Rican blood in me – and to think that I would want to deport people is just absurd."

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Arrieta has nearly 390,000 followers on Twitter, a strong personality that enjoys the interaction on social media and the megaphone that comes with being on the Cubs team that ended the 108-year drought.

"It's hard to convey a message in 140 characters," Arrieta said. "I thought I did a pretty good job. Other people didn't. But I feel like my stance is pretty open and honest and it's not to put anybody down.

"I was simply calling out people who have a tremendous platform of millions of followers that said they were going to leave the country if Trump was elected. I was basically calling their bluff. If you don't want to live here…then beat it.

"I'm pretty pro-United States, as I think everybody in this country should be, if you want to stay here. And if not, then I'm sure there's somewhere else they can go."