ARLINGTON, Texas – The last time the Cubs opened a season at an American League ballpark, they were a team on a mission.
In 2016, the Cubs wanted to show that their surprising 2015 playoff run to the National League Championship Series was no fluke and that they wanted to take the next step.
They opened the ’16 season by outscoring the Los Angeles Angels, 15-1, in sweeping two games. That set the tone for a run all the way to the franchise’s first World Series championship since 1908.
The Cubs will begin the 2019 season at the AL’s Texas Rangers, and this team is on a mission, too, but it’s a mission of a different sort.
Stung by losing Game 163 of the 2018 season to the Milwaukee Brewers and the wild-card playoff game to the Colorado Rockies after piling up 95 wins, the Cubs are on a mission to show that their core of players – a core that went unchanged in the offseason – still is good enough to win a World Series and cement their legacy as one of the great teams of this era.
It all begins at 3:05 p.m. Thursday at Globe Life Park against a rebuilding Rangers team that went 67-95 last year.
Spring training for the Cubs was businesslike, and the tone was serious. The National League Central looks to be much improved, so it may not take 95 victories to win it.
“I would take 95 every year,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s going to be more difficult, even with a perfectly healthy roster all season and everybody pretty much playing up to their capabilities. I just think that the rest of the division [has] gotten better. I think the National League’s gotten better. So taking all those things into consideration, to get to that number is going to be not easy.”
It looks like Maddon will be managing for his job. He is entering the fifth season of his five-year contract, and Cubs president Theo Epstein said he will wait until late in the year before considering an extension.
Even though the Cubs won 95 games last year, Epstein was angry that the offense collapsed in the second half. He also perceived a lack of urgency.
Veteran Ben Zobrist, the MVP of the 2016 World Series and a team leader, said during spring training that he does not believe complacency set in. He attributed the fade more to the grueling late-season schedule.
“‘Complacency’ is a tough word,” he said. “ ‘Exhaustion’ is probably the word I would have used more. But think that some of that could have been maybe helped if we had been a little more diligent earlier in the season. We got ourselves in a tough spot, and we were playing 42 out of 43 days in a row or at least going to the field to work on stuff.
“Then you have a hot team on your heels, and the next thing you know, you’re losing the lead. I think that we realized that this is never something to take for granted. I don’t think that anybody was, necessarily.
“But you really have to stay on it and stay on it with the discipline and the details. So we’re back to working toward those ends, and I feel like as a club if we can continue to spur each other on toward that end, I don’t see how there’s anybody that can beat us. I believe in the guys in this clubhouse.”
The Cubs didn't make any major moves in the offseason, passing on big-name free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
They picked up the $20 million option on pitcher Cole Hamels (who starts against his former team Sunday) and added utilityman Daniel Descalso.
There were a couple of surprises in spring training. Ian Happ was optioned to Triple-A Iowa. That enabled Mark Zagunis to make his first opening-day roster after he sipped cups of coffee with the Cubs the past two seasons.
Happ’s demotion also should allow Albert Almora Jr. to receive more playing time in center field and possibly reach 500 at-bats. Almora went 20 for 77 (.377) during spring training with three home runs and nine RBIs.
Veteran left-handed reliever Brian Duensing was cut, allowing Randy Rosario to make the roster after he impressed the Cubs last season.
Every year, Maddon and the Cubs talk about getting off to a good start in the regular season. This year begins with a three-city road trip to Texas, Atlanta and Milwaukee.
We could have a pretty good reading on this season by the time the ivy starts to bloom on the outfield walls at Wrigley Field.