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Cubs seek return to World Series in '18

After falling short last October, Chicago eyes title run
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

MESA, Ariz. -- Joe Maddon is trying to emphasize the art of the game this spring, and he has introduced paintings that are creative versions of the Mona Lisa, Einstein, Salvador Dali and Michaelangelo's David with his messages on them. If artwork can help the Cubs get to the postseason again, it will all make sense.

In Maddon's first three seasons with the Cubs, he's led them to the postseason each year. But instead of leaving things as they are, Maddon added some new coaches, including Jim Hickey (pitching), Chili Davis (hitting) and Brian Butterfield (infield). What's been invigorating this spring is the vibe.

MESA, Ariz. -- Joe Maddon is trying to emphasize the art of the game this spring, and he has introduced paintings that are creative versions of the Mona Lisa, Einstein, Salvador Dali and Michaelangelo's David with his messages on them. If artwork can help the Cubs get to the postseason again, it will all make sense.

In Maddon's first three seasons with the Cubs, he's led them to the postseason each year. But instead of leaving things as they are, Maddon added some new coaches, including Jim Hickey (pitching), Chili Davis (hitting) and Brian Butterfield (infield). What's been invigorating this spring is the vibe.

"You can feel it -- you can feel the confidence, you can feel they're ready," Maddon said. "The sense of team is outstanding. We did not like the way last year ended."

Video: Joe Maddon on feeling the energy in Spring Training

Last season ended with a loss in the National League Championship Series to the Dodgers as the Cubs fell short in their bid to repeat as World Series champs. They've got other plans regarding this season.

What's the goal? It's pretty simple. After winning their first World Series in 108 years in 2016, the Cubs want to do it again. They've reached the NLCS three years in a row, and their three straight trips to the postseason mark the first time in franchise history since 1906-08.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Jed Hoyer on developing pitching

What they need to avoid is a slow start. The Cubs were 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers at the All-Star break last year and needed a strong surge to win the division again. They can't use a World Series hangover as an excuse this time.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Rizzo on the team's focus in '18

"It's definitely different and a good feeling, a good hungry feeling," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said of camp this year. "Last year was coming off a major high. This year, everyone is focused and locked in early and shifting our focus to getting off to a good start because we know how important that is."

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Rizzo on the Parkland community

What's the plan? Most of the young talent that achieved that championship is still on the roster, including Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez. What the Cubs needed to do this offseason was fill in some gaps regarding the pitching. They didn't have to deal any of the young position players and signed free agents, including starters Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood and closer Brandon Morrow. Other additions to the bullpen include Steve Cishek. They're looking forward to having Jose Quintana and Justin Wilson for a full season. Both were acquired at the Trade Deadline last year.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Baez demos the art of tagging

What could go wrong? Last season, the Cubs realized how little pitching depth they had, particularly starting pitching. Jon Lester, 34, is heading into the second half of his six-year contract. He missed time last year because of shoulder fatigue. Darvish has pitched seven games against NL Central teams. Can he handle the switch to the NL full time? Chatwood didn't fare as well at home with the Rockies as he did on the road. Was the problem Coors Field? And do the Cubs have enough depth if one of their starters gets hurt? The Cubs are looking at their backup options regarding position players, too.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Lester excited for 2018 season

Who might surprise? Albert Almora Jr. is hoping to become more of an everyday player in center field. He batted .342 against left-handed pitching last season, and would like more at-bats against righties. Russell is coming off an injury-filled season and hoping to provide the power and RBI numbers that he did in 2016, when he hit 21 homers and drove in 95 runs.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs