Cubs embrace the target as spring training begins

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MESA, Ariz. (AP) The Chicago Cubs are facing soaring expectations, and manager Joe Maddon is welcoming them with a neat slogan: Embrace the Target.

''I'm really a big believer in running toward the fire, as opposed to away from it,'' he said Friday as pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. ''I really want our guys to get comfortable with the concept. Everybody's speaking so glowingly of us. ... We have to embrace the target.''

He wants players to get comfortable with the pressure that comes with being a favorite. He wants them to keep focus on a World Series title, which has eluded the Cubs since 1908.

Chicago won 97 games last year and advanced to the NL Championship Series in its first season under Maddon, ending a five-year run of losing records and sparking hope among long-suffering fans that a championship might finally be headed their way.

A busy offseason has done nothing to dim those hopes.

The Cubs added to a roster that already included NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, not to mention the Manager of the Year along with star slugger Anthony Rizzo. They signed three-time Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward ($184 million, eight years) and pitcher John Lackey ($32 million, two years), taking two players from NL Central rival St. Louis.

They also brought in two-time All-Star Ben Zobrist ($56 million, four years), reuniting him with Maddon and spurring the trade that sent Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees for pitcher Adam Warren.

''This is a special place,'' president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. ''And a special time to be in this place.''

He is not worried about overconfidence. The architect of Chicago's turnaround, he is entering the fifth and final season of the deal he signed when he left Boston following the 2011 season. Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts have said there is no holdup to a new deal, that there were more immediate issues to address.

''It's not a concern,'' Epstein said. ''I'm sure those conversations will take place in the natural course of events. Spring training's always a good time to have those types of conversations. But nothing's scheduled. No sense of urgency. We agree on the fundamentals, that I want to be here and I think he wants us here. It'll take care of itself.''

The Cubs are in a far different place than they were when they opened spring training a year ago. Back then, they were a team that appeared poised to improve. They finished with the third-best record in the major leagues.

Bryant, who hit 26 homers and drove in 99 runs last year after a mid-April callup, swam with sharks during a vacation in Hawaii.

''We have a really good team, and I think we have the right guy leading us and the right pieces that we added to complement our team last year,'' he said. ''It's gonna be fun.''

They have a chance to bring home the Cubs' first championship in 108 years.

''Yes, we want to talk about the playoffs. Yes, we want to talk about winning the division. Yes, talking about playing the last game of the season and winning it,'' Maddon said. ''But you don't want to get caught up in that thought. How do you do that? That is where we will really be focused. ... The process needs to be our anchor.''