By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) So this the is defending champion Cubs season opener column I’ve dreamed of writing ever since I won a contest in a bar in 2011 to get this job. (Honestly, I thought I’d have been fired a long time ago.)
The Cubs begin the 2017 season Sunday night in St. Louis as a different franchise than the world has ever known. The Lovable Losers, to children and those yet to be born, are the stuff of folk tales and grownup complaints of walking in the snow uphill both ways to see the Cubs lose both games of a doubleheader to the fictional Montreal Expos. Curses and Cubbie occurrences are mere silly memories that we the scarred can laugh at now instead of crying over. It is now Year 1 of this new Cubdom, the painful past prologue and no longer fodder for narrative or debate.
This is weird and different — but in a good way. Mostly because there’s a serenity to all this now. Confident as any Cubs player or fan was last year externally, there was no inner peace until well after Kris Bryant threw the final out to Anthony Rizzo after Nov. 2 had turned to Nov. 3 in Cleveland. The weight of the wait is gone. Light as a feather, Cubs fans enter a baseball season. The “This is the year” stuff was always a sort of Scientologist optimism in which you could see the eyes screaming for help past the wide struggling grin swearing enjoyment was being had.
But now the sign on the Lakeview Baseball Club building across the street from Wrigley’s right field reads “AC000000.” To be a Cub fan — for the first time ever — is to be at peace.
What then is a Cubs fan to do when one’s existence is suddenly playing with house money the rest of the way? In a spring that’s more metaphorical than literal, there’s still bounty to be had regardless of comfort.
“Be uncomfortable,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said on David Axelrod’s podcast of the team approach to Year 1.
“You really want to avoid the potential for complacency. If you’re uncomfortable, growth continues. If you’re comfortable, growth diminishes.”
And it’s crazy stupid that the Cubs have grown since winning the World Series and can continue to do so. Don’t get it twisted — the Cubs have won nothing in 2017. I’m awarding them no crowns beyond the one they currently wear. But they’re better on paper this year than last year, despite paper winning nothing.
The bullpen is strong, and while new closer Wade Davis’s spring wasn’t great, whatever. He already feels like the product of a trade (for Jorge Soler to the Kansas City Royals) that we’ll look at a few years from now and say, “Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer won that one, too.” Losing Dexter Fowler the person stinks but was expected. He’s replaced in part by the serviceable Jon Jay but more so by Albert Almora, whose patrol of center field is already a safety blanket while he boasts a blossoming bat. He has four homers this spring.
“This Almora guy has power and it’s going to keep getting bigger and better,” Maddon said. “He’s still young. As he understands more, you’re going to see the ball go in the air often and far.”
As a whole, the Year 1 team is going to hit a lot of balls out of parks. The Cubs will presumably top their 199 homers of 2016 with Kyle Schwarber as a fixture in the lineup again. The nether regions tingle at the thought of him in the lead-off spot. Jason Heyward has to be better because he can’t be worse, and defense doesn’t slump. Maddon’s biggest headache as of now is juggling too much talent and finding time for Javier Baez’s electricity.
The roster as comprised has enough on the bench as well as in the farm to make a trade deadline deal to bulk some aspect up or replace an injured player. And Epstein expects roster moves despite an inability beyond unpredictable injuries to find a weakness on this Year 1 team.
“This will be a normal baseball season with lots of roster moves throughout the season,” Epstein said. “Some guys get nicked up, and we make adjustments along the way. I know there is always a ton of emphasis on the Opening Day 25-man roster. It really is just one day out of 183. There will be a lot of transactions.”
If somehow you’re the worst of Cub fans and still haven’t rid your system of reflexive negativity, you could reach to kind of question the starting rotation. Yet with a healthy Brett Anderson, the already dominant trio of Jon Lester-Jake Arrieta-Kyle Hendricks and the hobo witchcraft of John Lackey feels stronger. But Epstein will dutifully point to the rotation as his concern so as to not admit his team is basically flawless.
“The day after the World Series, if you asked me what’s the single greatest threat to the 2017 Cubs, I would’ve said starting pitching depth,” Epstein told The Athletic. “Because if we have a couple injuries, we don’t have guys ready to step up. I still feel that could be an area of potential concern but Eddie Butler, that acquisition and the way he’s looked this spring, has got us pretty excited.”
Not even that can rattle the nerves of compos mentis Cub fans in Year 1. The team is going to talk the talk of one dismissive of complacency, as it should, but as the theme becomes keeping the hunger, who will even challenge the Cubs? The Washington Nationals, New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants are all good baseball teams. The Cardinals will try to milk their usual devil magic at some point but are no longer the bully on the NL Central block. Not one of those teams is as good as this Cubs team as they all stand at the moment.
Nothing is a given, and Cub fans shouldn’t be satisfied with one championship out of this core group. For the sake of all things not brain-drainingly nostalgic, please don’t let this team become the 1985 Chicago Bears. But if that’s the conflict right now, it’s a pretty good one to have.
Much can change over the course of 162 games, of course, sometimes drastically. Odds are against a repeat. Fear of the unknown used to be worrisome for Cubs fans entering April after April in which they lied to themselves to the point of routine.
But that sort of routine is a million years away after just a single 2016. Now comes a new habit of utter confidence that for now feels foreign, but I expect it will grow on us.
Now begins Year 1.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.