Cubs are ready to be 'targets' in 2016

CHICAGO – A year after Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo declared his team would win the National League Central, young Kyle Schwarber has jumped into the prediction game as well -- though it’s hardly bulletin-board material.

“I feel like we’re going to win the division,” Schwarber said Wednesday night. “We showed what we can do when we’re all in it for the common goal.”

What the Cubs did in 2015 was win 97 games – not enough to win the division but enough to get to the postseason and eliminate Central foes Pittsburgh and St. Louis before falling to the New York Mets in the NLCS. The Cubs are preparing to finish the job as 2016 kicks off with the annual fan convention this week. Players are converging in frigid Chicago but will undoubtedly be warmed by the reception they receive. The opposition is a different story.

“There’s probably going to be more targets on our back, so we’re going to have to come with our ‘A’ game every game,” Schwarber said.

The word “target” was used often on Wednesday as Schwarber and his teammates joined Joe Maddon in serving the manager’s special spaghetti-and-meatballs recipe to the Chicago homeless on a bitterly cold evening. In between there was plenty of time to talk about the preseason favorite to win the World Series.

The Cubs have quickly turned from hunter to the hunted as offseason additions have bolstered an already-loaded team. Maddon indicated he’s fine-tuning his message as the team prepares for spring training next month. One key: Everyone has now been through a pennant race and postseason, including key newcomers.

“The guys that have never won learned how to win this year,” Maddon said. “That matters a lot. … We brought in guys that know what that’s like also.”

Maddon reeled off names like Jason Heyward (“one of the five best players in the National League”), Ben Zobrist (“one of the five best human beings”), John Lackey and Adam Warren. What does that group have in common? They all played in the postseason as recently as last year, with Zobrist and Lackey arriving with World Series titles on their resumes. All of a sudden the Cubs have a roster with all sorts of winning experience. They should know how to get it done from start to finish. Last year things kicked in only when the young players started to make strides. Now they’re young veterans.

“We have to be ready Day 1,” Rizzo said. “Every game is a must-win for us. That’s how we approach every game.”

And the key to doing that throughout a long season – targets on their back or not – is to have fun while grinding it out. It’s Maddon’s style.

“We have a chance to replicate what we did last year,” Maddon said. “Hopefully we’ll win eight more games.”

Last year Rizzo felt he needed to raise the bar, so he made bold declarations. This time around he can let his team’s play do the talking. They have a target on their back because they’re good. Maintaining what they have is the first goal, then it's to go further in the postseason.

“If we win 97 games again I think we’ll be alright,” Rizzo said.