(MCT) — The Cubs never have been a franchise lacking for possible excuses — the grind of day baseball, the cramped facilities at Wrigley Field or an alleged curse a tavern owner leveled more than six decades ago.
But the new regime, with baseball president Theo Epstein at the helm off the field and manager Dale Sveum on it, insists they won’t weigh on the team.
Do the Cubs have some built-in obstacles other teams don’t?
“Not really,” Epstein said. “If you name a market I’ll tell you a few things that are beneficial to that market and a few obstacles that get in the way of winning. The Cubs are the same (as) everybody.”
So the Cubs start off the 2012 season on equal footing with the other 29 major league franchises. And despite the bleak outlook that goes hand-in-hand with any team that cuts payroll after coming off a fifth-place finish, the players and management all have voiced optimism that things will get better much quicker than anyone anticipates.
The Cubs open up the new era Thursday at Wrigley against Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg, hoping to get some early traction and gain some confidence.
If that happens, fans will begin buying into the team as the ballpark starts getting packed for the “tourist” season that arrives in June. A raging bonfire of Cubs Fever would follow and Theo-mania would reign across the landscape.
But that scenario ignores the light-hitting, bullpen-deficient team it looks like on paper.
“For our team having some young guys and guys coming off (poor) years, it’s good for us to get off to a good start and for them to get off to a good start,” Sveum said Wednesday before the first workout at Wrigley Field.
“The confidence level is what we’re looking for. We need to start (strong) because we’re obviously not facing fifth starters our first week of the season ( Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo for instance).”
There’s a new Cubs Way and there’s no turning back. Parallel fronts, analytics and foundation-building now are part of the Cubs’ vocabulary as they basically are looking toward the future while trying to be respectable in the present.
The man in charge of making it happen is Sveum, who instilled a true feeling of accountability among the players in spring training, while trying to change the offense to make the Cubs more aggressive on the basepaths.
“He took spring very seriously from the moment he got the job,” Epstein said. “He had sort of an advanced spring training meeting with the coaching staff (in Mesa, Ariz.,) and walked the grounds to make sure they understood the physical landscape and how that would affect their plans.
“He prepared quite well and that was clear to all the players that things were well organized and there was an emphasis on hard work, preparation, attention to detail. Dale and the staff deserve a lot of credit for that. That said, the players deserve a lot of credit because they were a willing and captive audience.”
Sveum is not the most colorful manager in Cubs annals, and won’t be a quote machine like Don Zimmer, Dusty Baker or Lou Piniella. In fact, the essence of Sveum’s mantra became clear before a spring training game in Las Vegas when he was asked why he was waiting to announce the rotation that seemingly was set with Chris Volstad and Jeff Samardzija.
“I don’t really have an explanation of why,” he said. “It’s probably just the way we want to do it.”
Sveum’s first edition in Chicago features one position player coming off a great offensive season in Starlin Castro, one starter who pitched consistently in Matt Garza and 23 others who have to prove themselves because of age, poor seasons or never truly living up to their capabilities.
It will be a battle to keep things afloat, which is why the future always will be stressed.
The new regime came in saying the farm system needed significant upgrades without actually seeing most of the players in the organization.
After six weeks of watching the prospects, are they any more optimistic?
“I’m not saying I’m more optimistic, because I don’t want to say I was pessimistic coming in,” player development chief Jason McLeod said. “I feel really good about where we are from an overall talent standpoint, and seeing where we have strengths that were once weaknesses. We have a lot of depth in the organization. Still, our goal and focus and challenges will be to acquire and develop more ‘impact’ type guys.
“That’s a word we say a lot, but at the same time, seeing a lot of the younger guys, especially out of Latin America and the job we’ve done down there, has been real enlightening and encouraging to me.”
McLeod likes the “inventory” of arms in the system, especially now that the demotions of Randy Wells and Travis Wood to Triple-A Iowa gives the club the chance to develop younger pitchers at a lower level instead of promoting them too quickly.
Despite strong spring performances from outfielder Brett Jackson and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs stuck to their game plan and sent their two top prospects to Iowa.
“There’s that growing period when a kid wants to be up there so badly, and from a performance standpoint maybe he feels he deserves to be there,” McLeod said. “But we’re looking at the long term.
“And let’s face it, those two kids should be part of our major league team for a long time, and we really want to do everything we can to make sure they’re ready, and not have to get on the shuttle, going back and forth. ... We don’t want to bring them up to create a buzz or a stir, but to help the team.”
The Cubs hope to create their own buzz when the season begins on Thursday.
After all, it’s not just another opening day.