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Youthful lineup looking to reach new heights

Five players under 25 hit 20-plus homers in '17
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

MESA, Ariz. -- Last season, the Cubs set a franchise record with six players with at least 20 homers. All six are back this year. How good can the Cubs' offense be?

"This offense can be really scary," Kyle Schwarber said Sunday. "I tell people, we have a group of three-hole hitters on our team and even on the bench. You can't take a break. You've got to lock in on everyone. That has to be a tough task for a pitcher. We're trying to put as much pressure on that pitcher every day."

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MESA, Ariz. -- Last season, the Cubs set a franchise record with six players with at least 20 homers. All six are back this year. How good can the Cubs' offense be?

"This offense can be really scary," Kyle Schwarber said Sunday. "I tell people, we have a group of three-hole hitters on our team and even on the bench. You can't take a break. You've got to lock in on everyone. That has to be a tough task for a pitcher. We're trying to put as much pressure on that pitcher every day."

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The six who hit least 20 homers last year included Anthony Rizzo (32 home runs), Schwarber (30), Kris Bryant (29), Ian Happ (24), Javier Baez (23), and Willson Contreras (21). The 2017 Cubs totaled 223 home runs, the second-highest single-season total in franchise history, topped only by the 2004 team (235).

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Plus, the Cubs who are providing all the punch are young. Last season, they set an MLB record with five 20-homer seasons by players age 25 or younger (Baez, Bryant, Contreras, Happ, Schwarber). That topped the 2007 Brewers and 1979 Expos (four apiece). The 2017 Dodgers also had four such players. 

If he hadn't missed time because of injuries, Addison Russell most likely would have been in that 20-homer group, too. He belted 21 in 2016.

Video: Russell breaks down the Cubs' goals for 2018 season

"When you watch him in [batting practice], he hits the balls as loud as anybody out there," manager Joe Maddon said of Russell. "He's really strong from the finger-tips to the elbows.

"He's always been a good run producer," Maddon said of the shortstop. "He will drive in a run and he will show up when it's hot. As he gets older -- and they're getting that experience -- and commands the strike zone better, that's when the average will come up. He will produce runs."

Of course, Rizzo and Bryant are the focus of the Cubs lineup. Maddon is eager to see how Contreras progresses this season.

Video: Outlook: Bryant holds firm place among game's elite

"Willson right now -- wow," Maddon said. "The at-bats he's working and what he does to good pitchers, and not just anybody, is impressive. Those three guys in the middle really set the tone."

All that's left to do in the final week of games in Arizona is determine who will set up the Cubs' big boppers. Maddon has yet to name a designated leadoff man, saying they'll most likely rotate players in that spot depending on that day's opposing pitcher.

Still, the Cubs were able to score 822 runs -- second most in the National Leagle last season -- using 11 different leadoff men.

"It's about approach," Maddon said. "We need to be more consistent putting the numbers up on a nightly basis and against the better guys. That's where we have to ascend. Approach, that's what we're talking about.

"You talk about data, you can talk about this and that, but it's about thinking in the box or not thinking in the box, if that makes any sense," Maddon said. "You go out there and have an approach -- how am I going to attack this guy? Your thoughts are not on you but, 'What am I seeing now and how am I going to beat this guy?' just like you did in Little League."

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

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