Exorcise regimen: Demons purged, Cubs eye repeat

January 15th, 2017

CHICAGO -- Tom Ricketts couldn't help himself.

In his comments welcoming fans to the Cubs Convention, Ricketts made it clear just how things have changed for his franchise.

"We're looking forward to 2017," Ricketts said. "I think that anyone who knows Cubs history knows that when the Cubs win a World Series, they always win again the next year."

Well, they did in 1908 after winning in '07, anyway.

It's hard to imagine that Frank Chance's team could have felt much better about its chance to defend its championship than the current Cubs do. , & Co. will celebrate Game 7 of the World Series a few more times -- including during a visit to the White House on Monday -- but they have already started looking forward to being together again in Arizona, trying to build on the legacy they've begun.

7th Heaven? Champs relive stressful WS clincher

"Hopefully we'll be the team to beat," Bryant said. "We certainly feel that way. We're going to go with it and play our hearts out."

While leadoff man has left to join the Cardinals, this is largely the same team that fought its way through the Indians, Dodgers and Giants in 2016 after losing to the Mets in the '15 National League Championship Series.

replaces as the closer, but the starting rotation and lineup are pretty much back and healthy. That includes , who played only two regular-season games last year.

Few teams in the Major Leagues can match the Cubs for continuity. Rizzo, Bryant, Schwarber, , , , , , and are all under contract or the Cubs' control through 2019, and most of that group through 2021.

"The beauty of having this great young core of players is there will be some offseasons when we have some heavy lifting, filling in pieces, but these are our guys," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "We're going forward with these guys. They're really good, really talented, and I think fans are going to see the same guys year after year. That's the beauty of the core guys we have."

The Cubs know they have a chance to approach the kind of run that the Yankees put together from 1996-2001, when they won four championships and went to the World Series five times. Chicago has won five of six postseason rounds the last two seasons, beginning with the dramatic NL Wild Card Game against Pittsburgh in 2015.

"You gain through some inner confidence a default belief that you and your teammates know how to win," said Theo Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations. "Through hard times you just have the faith in getting back to what got you there, knowing that you're good enough not only to compete, but to win and to win the whole thing. That kind of confidence is hard to create. That's why you see teams kind of gradually do better and better and better the more times they're in the postseason."

The Giants had won 11 consecutive postseason series or rounds before the Cubs knocked them off in the NL Division Series this past October, rallying in the ninth inning of Game 4 to avoid facing in a decisive Game 5. They rallied from being down two games to one in the NL Championship Series against the Dodgers and three games to one to the Indians in the World Series.

Safe to say they've exorcised the demons from the franchise's past.

"Now we're just a really good baseball team," Hoyer said to CSN Chicago. "We're not a team that has a curse or issues winning. Now we're a world champion, and we move forward. Next year when a game is close in the playoffs, no one will be concerned about what's going to happen, nobody is going to worry about something bizarre happening. … We've been through this. We've won. I think [fans] now are going to expect to win. Look at the Red Sox. Now people expect to win. That's where the Cubs are going to be. People expect to win."

Manager Joe Maddon has helped build a cohesiveness and strength in his players. They seem excited about the chance to build off last year's 103-win season.

"It's [about] topping last year," Russell said. "Last year was a great year. [But] I think we had a lot of ups and downs. This year I feel like we can perfect that a little bit, so it's more of a stable thing, whether you're looking at individual-wise or team-wise. We have the type of core to do that. We're comfortable with each other. It's an open clubhouse. We welcome guys that are new in the clubhouse. We're excited about , excited about [Wade] Davis, anybody who is part of the Cubs family."

Bryant says it will be business as usual when the Cubs get to Mesa, Ariz.

"We've had that target on our backs, and we're not going to change anything," he said. "We've learned a lot along the way -- 2017 will be nothing different.''

The Cubs won six more games in 2016 than they did in '15. They believe they can continue that progression in '17, repeating as NL Central champs and winning more than 103 games.

While Bryant is coming off an MVP season, he believes he can be better. He knows his team can continue to improve.

"For me, personally, it's easy," Bryant said. "I know that I did well. I performed fine. I just want to continue to build off that, be the best player I can be. Part of that is you have to forget what's happened in the past, good or bad. I think we have the right group here that guys will just be able to realize how special it was but to realize how much better it would be to sustain that success and do it again next year. I think we're hungrier than ever. We'd love to be that team that goes back to back. I think we all have the right mindset."

Epstein's Red Sox teams won the World Series twice but didn't do it in back-to-back seasons. Only the Yankees (1998-2000) and Blue Jays (1992-93) have successfully defended World Series victories since a run of powerhouses in the 1970s (A's, Reds and Yankees).

"The primary reason why it's hard to repeat is ... it's really hard to win the World Series," Epstein said. "In any given year, if you're any old team you might have a 3 percent chance. If you're the best, you might have a 10-12 percent chance. It's just hard to do."

But Epstein knows other factors work against sustained success, and not just the increased workload on pitchers navigating the long postseason.

"There are things that get in the way," he said. "When you win, you get pulled in a lot of different directions. There can be a tendency, no matter the character [of a team], to start thinking about yourself a little bit. We have to work really hard, we all do, to avoid any type of organizational arrogance, any sense of entitlement."

It's the right thing to say, of course. But as Epstein talks, it's clear he believes that the Cubs have assembled the right players and created the right culture to handle their success.

"You really understand that of all the great things that happened last year, [the best] is that we all got to be part of something bigger than ourselves," he said. "It's really important to opt back into that mindset, to buy back into being a team player, in a team-centric organization. Let players buy back in, be unselfish and try to do it all over again. … I don't worry about our group, but some teams after winning it, other things get in the way of that bond."

Go ahead, turn the page. The Cubs are ready to see what comes next.