Cubs try ramping down expectations after hot start

CHICAGO -- For all the Chicago Cubs fans waving “Next Year Is Here!” signs, all the Las Vegas oddsmakers who have declared the Cubs as prohibitive favorites to win the World Series, and all the sports reporters who are measuring the Cubs’ start against the starts of the greatest teams in major league history, Cubs president Theo Epstein has a simple message: Slow down.

Epstein believes the Cubs, who took an MLB-best 24-6 record into Tuesday night’s game with the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field, haven’t had the kind of sustained success to warrant such accolades -- and it makes him uneasy.

“Baseball karma is real,” he said before Tuesday’s game. “When you see some of the stuff written about us in the winter and you see some of the World Series odds and things like that for a team that is the defending third-place team [in the NL Central] and hasn’t done anything yet ... you get uncomfortable because there are teams that have gone out and earned it.

“The Atlanta Braves made the postseason 14 straight times, the San Francisco Giants won three out of five World Series, the Yankees and the Red Sox are in the postseason every year, and the Cardinals. Those are teams that should be lauded for their accomplishments.”

There’s no doubt the young Cubs have the potential to join those teams, but right now the word “potential” simply means they aren’t there now.

“When it happened to us -- and we really haven’t earned it yet -- it gets a little uncomfortable, and you’d rather just go out in a vacuum and earn it. That’s not the reality,” Epstein said.

“It’s nobody’s fault, but hopefully at the end of the year we’ll look up and say we earned what people are saying about us.”

In Epstein’s mind, there’s still doubt about whether the Cubs are as good as their record.

“We’re thrilled with the start that we’ve gotten off to, obviously, but we’re not blinded by it,” he said. “We know we’re in a stretch right now where winning seems far easier than it actually is, and we know there’s going to be a stretch -- probably a long stretch -- this year where winning even one game seems virtually impossible. That’s just the nature of baseball.

“We’ve been saying in the office: We’re in a tree right now. We want to stay up there as long as we can, but we’re gonna get down at some point.”

While Chicago’s potent offense has gotten much of the attention, the Cubs entered Tuesday with three starting pitchers who have an ERA below 2.00. Those three -- Jake Arrieta (1.13), Jon Lester (1.58) and Jason Hammel (1.85) -- are ranked among the top four ERAs in the National League. That is unlikely to continue all season.

“We still have vulnerabilities, we still have areas where we need to get better, we still have challenges and more adversity to come,” Epstein said. “So we want to stay as locked in as we are right now, but the game is very humbling and we’re aware that time is coming when there are gonna be great challenges.

“We almost look forward to it. That’s when you find out what you’re made of, more so than the good stretches like we’re on right now.”

To understand Epstein’s point, all you have to do is the math. If the Cubs continue to win 80 percent of their games, they’d finish with 130 wins -- blowing away the current mark of 116.

“Experience teaches you to take it with a grain of salt,” he said. “This is not baseball reality. Baseball reality is it’s really hard to win a single big league game. That’s why we celebrate them so much. I’m proud of our guys. We’ve played extremely well in all phases of the game, and it’s really rare when that happens. They’ve been really focused and really locked in.”

Mild response to Strasburg contract: The seven-year, $175 million contract extension right-hander Stephen Strasburg signed with the Washington Nationals drew little reaction from the Cubs -- even though it could impact their ability to sign Arrieta to a contract extension since both pitchers are represented by Scott Boras.

“You pay attention to everything that goes on in the game, but it doesn’t impact us too much,” Epstein said. “Obviously, it will impact markets and we have to operate in markets, but it is what it is.”