When you are the Chicago Cubs, maybe the most cursed, endearing and followed team in Major League Baseball, there is no hiding. When you are this popular and have lost this ugly for this long, you cannot duck great hope.
And while most would try, the Cubs do not. The expectations are welcomed by a franchise that has not won a World Series since 1908 and more recently finished fifth in the National League Central five consecutive times.
It is also a franchise relying heavily on players in their early 20s who have never dealt with such expectations. That isn’t quelling the optimism, though.
“Bring on the expectations,” new manager Joe Maddon said during a Q&A session at the team’s fan event last weekend. “What’s wrong with that? I think it’s great.
“Every year when I go to spring training, I promise you, I'm going to talk 90-plus wins every year, I'm going to talk playoffs every year, and we're going to believe it's going to happen.”
The offbeat, silver-haired manager isn't the only one who feels this way. A few days before Maddon’s statements, All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo predicted, “We’re going to win the NL Central.”
But Maddon is known for occasionally doing or saying outrageous things, and Rizzo is a 25-year-old player. Surely we would expect more modesty from the company’s buttoned-down brass, right?
Well, if you expected it, you were wrong. Sort of. Team president Theo Epstein's remarks were tinged with humbleness, but he also made it clear that it was time for this organization to field a team that can get its massive fanbase excited.
“Please hold us accountable,” Epstein said at the event. “We're trying to win. We're also continuing to try to grow the organization. That means we're going to be throwing a lot of young players out there. We ask for your patience with them because it's a process. But hold us accountable.”
Cubs are in unique position of creating huge expectations yet are so young in so many key positions..tempering those same expectations— karl ravech (@karlravechespn) December 10, 2014
There are plenty of reasons why the Cubs should be held accountable now. The team already signed Jon Lester to head their promising rotation, traded for outfielder Dexter Fowler and the door is not closed on adding another major piece to the pitching staff.
Still, it is one thing for the manager, a recently proven player and the front office to exude confidence and accept the expectations that come with a headline-making offseason. It is quite another for a group of guys who recently made their major league debuts, or who have yet to do so, to shoulder the burden of a 106-year drought.
The public does not care, apparently. Last month, Bovada, an online sports book, made the Cubs 12-1 favorites to win the World Series. The team is nowhere near that good—those odds are the same as the Detroit Tigers' and better than the St. Louis Cardinals'—but odds shift depending on betters, a group of people who clearly went Cubs crazy after the team signed Lester.
The stark truth is those expectations are too much for a team counting on Rizzo and 24-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro to carry its offense.
Beyond that pair, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Jorge Soler—who are all 23 or younger and have no more than 300 major league plate appearances—will be expected to contribute significantly. While that young trio is talented, growing pains are more likely than success in 2015.
Prospects are also contributing to fans' expectations. Prospects, meaning players who have yet to play in a big league game. Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and C.J. Edwards, among several other promising minor leaguers, are all part of this new Cubs hope, but they are also all completely unproven at the major league level.
It is fine to welcome expectations if you’re the Cubs. It is time for Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer to start producing at the major league level, and it is understandable for fans to hold them accountable.
What is not understandable is the expectation that this young team—it could start up to four players with a combined 626 plate appearances—will contend for a division title, regardless of what Maddon and Rizzo say in January.
Before setting the bar for this season's Cubs, some questions must be addressed. If we are asking if the expectations will be too high for this young team to handle, the answer is a definitive yes. However, that is only because the expectations are absurd. If we are asking if 2015 will be a stepping stone on the journey for the Cubs to eventually become a winner, the answer, again, is yes.
The Cubs have real talent, but it still has to be groomed. That is what much of 2015 will be about. Assuming the Cubs are aggressive again next offseason and players like Bryant and Edwards are ready to contribute in the majors, high expectations would be considered reasonable in 2016.
Until then, the hope has to grow with the youth movement. Rushing either of them is a mistake.
Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous three seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News, and four years before that as the Brewers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.