MESA, Ariz.—Here in the Arizona desert lies an exclusive retreat where guests awake each morning to “Sunrise Yoga” classes, followed by made-to-order smoothies and cold-pressed juices from the on-site juice bar and piles of fresh fruit and berries; where morning outdoor stretch class takes place to the beat from five-foot high speakers that blare classic rock tunes; where custom-made Pilates reformers dot the vast exercise room; where the daily schedule of events always includes a pithy quote of the day (“It’s not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.”—Bear Bryant); where portable music players accompany the guests around their various outdoor activities; where daily one-on-one consultations are guided by the mantra of “be yourself”; and where everyone is exceedingly happy and optimistic.
Welcome to Cub Med—the eternally blissful spring training camp of the odds-on favorite to win the World Series, the Chicago Cubs.
Wait. The Cubs? That contagion of failure for more than a century? The franchise that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908, nor even won a playoff game in back-to-back years since then? Yes, the Cubbies.
If you thought Chicago would crater from the expectations created by a 97-win breakout season last year built on the backs of young players (think the 2013 Washington Nationals, who fell from 98 wins to 86), grab a bottle of carrot and turmeric juice—like the one reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta brought to his press conference Saturday (“Helps with post-workout inflammation,” quoth baseball’s top fitness fanatic)—and chill. Before he sets off in the afternoon on his fat-tire bike for off-road adventures, new-age manager Joe Maddon runs the hippest, happiest camp in baseball.
The Cubs are good and they know they’re good. Not that they take anything for granted; if you show up at 6:30 a.m., for instance, extra work for catchers has already begun on a practice field. It’s that they go about their work with a kind of collegiate confidence, a rapport in which the joy of playing together is greater than the burden of having to meet expectations as an individual.
“You have to really beat to death process,” Madden said about maintaining focus.
Of course, Madden, who birthed the “Respect 90” theme last spring to instill a culture of effort, has a new slogan for this camaraderie under pressure. One day while talking to reporters during the winter meetings last December, he heard himself draw from Jack Ryan in Clear and Present Danger when he said his team should “embrace the target.” Voila! He had himself the perfect theme for Season Two of The Hundred Years (or more) Quest: Embrace the Target. The Cubs welcome the expectations.
“Last year was good,” catcher David Ross said of the spring training vibe. “Really good. But this year, I don’t want to say it’s night and day, but it’s even better. The young players have a year under their belts, the postseason experience … and everybody thinks in terms of, what can I do to help the team. I’m telling you, it’s special. It’s genuine.”
As Ross spoke, he held a freshly-made post-workout smoothie in one hand and his order sheet in another. The eight-inch long menu must have had at least three dozen ingredients from which to choose.
Listen to what Joe Guru, the manager, said about his view of spring training (after explaining that the eyewash of players showing up early for spring training is “overkill”): “One of the things I stressed [on Day One] was be yourself—individuality, authenticity. Spring training is not about batting practice or side sessions or how many repetitions you get in. The most important thing is to get them thinking properly. It’s not about how many repetitions of what occur. I want us to think well.”
He has spent the first week of camp scheduling individual meetings with each player. The meetings last from five to 15 minutes. Maddon will spell out loose plans for the player, but mostly he wants not to create boundaries but to give the player the freedom to be his most relaxed self. (Workout No. 1: “Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”—Vince Lombardi)
Just wait, for instance, to see what the Cubs do with their biggest addition, Jason Heyward, the $184 million outfielder with the funky batting stroke, so-so power, a .230 career average against lefthanders and fewer total bases last year than Dexter Fowler, the man he is replacing in centerfield (and who still is unsigned). The answer is just “be yourself,” rather than complicate Heyward’s natural ability with yet another set of swing changes.
In 2010, at the age of 20 and barely removed from travel baseball, Heyward astonished the baseball world with powerful hitting in spring training for Atlanta. I remember Terry Pendleton, the Braves hitting coach, watching him take batting practice in Lakeland, Fla., one day as Heyward kept bombing balls over a batting shed beyond the rightfield wall. “That swing,” Pendleton said with a laugh, “is not something you teach.”
Heyward made the Opening Day roster, homered in his first at-bat, and posted an .849 OPS that year. He never has reached that level since. He was at his best when he was at his most raw—the closest to “being yourself.” Maddon and Chicago's hitting coaches, John Mallee and Eric Hinske, will reinforce “thinking well” over mechanics.
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Some positive signs already are in place for the Cubs, including:
• Shortstop Addison Russell has dropped 15 pounds and has been telling teammates, “You don’t know how fast I am. I’m going to steal 25 bags this year.” He stole four last season.
• Third baseman Kris Bryant, the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year, has continued the slight but key swing change he made late last year that hardly drew much attention. Bryant, who took pride in trying to hit every ball in the air, reduced the massive attack angle he took to the baseball. It is by no means a flat swing now, but it is somewhat flatter. The result? After Aug. 1 last year, Bryant crushed pitching to a slash line of .326/.398/.572, and his batting average on balls in play jumped from .333 to .450. Moreover, Bryant has adopted a more vigorous training routine that has increased his strength.
• Starter Jason Hammel, a notoriously poor second-half pitcher (20–37, 5.15 ERA compared to 49–40, 4.06 in first halves), wowed teammates and staff by showing up fitter and stronger.
• Pitcher Jon Lester, who took a 4.03 ERA into July with his new team last year, looks thrilled to be teammates again with his friend and alter ego, John Lackey. Said Giants pitcher Jake Peavy, their teammate with the world champion 2013 Red Sox, “That’s going to be huge for Jon. He likes people around him he’s comfortable with, and Lack really pushes him.”
As Arrieta likes to say, Chicago won 97 games last year and added three elite players: Heyward, Lackey and second baseman Ben Zobrist. It’s the best team on paper in baseball. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty.
For instance, the Cubs may be asking too much of the 240-pound Heyward to switch from rightfield to centerfield while flanked by two sub-par corner outfielders in Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber. The outfield defense may be such a problem the team may have to trade for a true centerfielder at midseason. They may be asking too much of Schwarber, who is challenged this spring with working on his defense behind the plate, working on his defense in leftfield and working on his production against lefthanded pitching (.143 average).
Chicago may also be in some trouble when it comes to rotation depth. Its best options to replace an injured starter are all in the bullpen, such as Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood, Clayton Richard and either Kyle Hendricks or Adam Warren. That makes for an awkward transition when it comes to having a pitcher stretched out enough to give decent length.
And as the NLCS last year against the Mets showed, maybe this team isn’t cut out for your typical matchup against power pitching you see in the postseason. Though Heyward and Zobrist should help, the Cubs had too much swing-and-miss in their lineup last year. They ranked last in strikeouts and next-to-last in hitting with runners in scoring position and against power pitchers.
Every team, however, has a worst-case scenario. Injuries are the great unknown. Expectations can add pressure. At this time last year, the Nationals were, with a rotation enriched by the addition of Max Scherzer, the talk of baseball. Remember Bryce Harper joking, “Where’s my ring?” Well, the Nats’ Big Five starters (Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister) remained relatively healthy (they made 83% of the team’s starts) and still Washington won only 83 games. Meanwhile, half the starting pitchers in the World Series weren’t even in their team’s rotation at the start of the year.
It’s a long season. But today, as the sun rises over another yoga class in Cubs camp, Chicago has a chance to win it all. The Cubs don't have a single player in the decline phase of his career, including the steady Zobrist, 34, and Lackey, 37, who is coming off a career-low 2.77 ERA and has become a premium strike-thrower since his Tommy John surgery in 2011. The Cubs are cool with the idea of being the World Series favorite. They are, to borrow from Joe Guru, thinking well.