Cubs look to make big leap into contention

CHICAGO (AP) Standing in the shade on a beautiful afternoon in Arizona, Jon Lester embraced the question that hovers over the Chicago Cubs these days.

When it comes to all those highly touted prospects, Lester said the time is now.

''When I played in Boston, we didn't have time to grow up,'' the left-hander explained. ''You just had to show up and play, and each year you're expected to win, so that's how I feel. Every year they should come in and expect to be not only division winners, but World Series champions. If you don't have that mindset, then I think you're playing for the wrong reasons.''

Heady stuff for a franchise known mostly for futility, but the Cubs think it's a new era after five consecutive losing seasons.

The shift in thinking for president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and the rest of the front office was evident during an aggressive offseason that included the addition of Joe Maddon after the veteran manager opted out of his contract with Tampa Bay, and a $155 million, six-year contract for Lester.

The hiring of Maddon meant dumping Rick Renteria after just one year, and Lester's deal is a significant investment for a pitcher who turned 31 in January. But looking at their good young core and rich minor league system, the Cubs felt it was time to act.

''There's a lot of talent here. Now it's about executing,'' Lester said. ''It's going out and playing good baseball for six months. It's hard to do. But that's why we're here. We're going to figure it out as we go.''

The Cubs, who also traded for center fielder Dexter Fowler and catcher Miguel Montero, should be much improved after their 73-89 finish in 2014. But going from last place to the playoffs could depend more on the development of Chicago's top prospects than its newest players.

Jorge Soler takes over in right field after making his major league debut in August and drawing raves for his approach at the plate in the season's final month. Javier Baez will begin the season in the minors, but the free-swinging infielder, Arismendy Alcantara and Kris Bryant - all 20-something position players with considerable potential - also are key to the Cubs' chance for a breakthrough.

''You don't really read enough about their personalities and their makeup. That to me makes them real prospects,'' Maddon said. ''There's a lot of guys who throw 95 mph and hit balls out of sight. But with the makeup, personality and character ... that's what really turns me on to this group.''

Here are a few more things to watch with the Cubs:

UNDER THE RADAR: Jake Arrieta was a pleasant surprise last year, finishing with a 10-5 record and a sparkling 2.53 ERA in 25 starts. He struck out 167 in 156 2-3 innings and allowed just five homers.

Arrieta, 29, began last season on the disabled list with right shoulder tightness, but looked healthy this spring and could team with Lester to give Chicago a potent top of the rotation.

''There's always room to improve. There's always things to get better at,'' Arrieta said. ''There's a right way to go about doing that, and I think that there's some things that I can clean up and kind of use in regard to what I did last season to make it even better.''

AT THE PLATE: The Cubs struck out a major league-high 1,477 times last season, and their .300 on-base percentage was 28th among 30 teams. They had six players with at least 100 strikeouts.

The addition of Fowler, who had a .375 on-base percentage last season with Houston, should help the top of the order, and the pressure is on new hitting coach John Mallee to help the young hitters make more consistent contact.

IN THE DUGOUT: Maddon is one of the game's most creative managers, and the move to the NL and one of the game's most quirky ballparks in Wrigley Field could lead to all sorts of different lineups. He could put the pitcher in the eighth slot in some situations. Pretty much everything is on the table when it comes to Maddon.

IN THE FIELD: The majors' second-oldest ballpark is undergoing a major renovation that could affect its notoriously fickle wind, which can turn innocent fly balls into homers and long drives into outs. A massive new videoboard is expected to be in place by opening day, but the bleachers will be under construction for the first part of the season. How the work on the ballpark affects the play on the field remains to be seen.

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Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

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