Kasper: Give Maddon credit for embracing the target
Expectations are a funny thing. In the baseball world, they create the template on which a team will be judged in any given season.
If you're young and seen as being in a rebuilding phase, like the Cubs were the last few years, you are able to somewhat fly under the radar like the 97-win club did in 2015. Going into that season, simply a winning record would have been seen as progress.
This year, the calculus has changed quite a bit.
The Cubs are widely believed to be the most talented team in baseball. They have arguably the game's best manager and a front office led by the architect of two World Championships in Boston.
The team is coming off a winter shopping spree that included a 26-year-old free agent who could be a perennial MVP contender, a super-competitive righty teeing off on the 18th hole of his career but coming off one of his best seasons, and a switch-hitting infielder getting sized for a World Series ring for his role on last year's champs. And for good measure, they surprised everybody by having last year's table-setter casually walk into camp after signing him to a new contract a day after the rest of the world assumed he was becoming a Baltimore oriole.
So yeah, expectations are a "little bit" higher this time around.
But do lofty outside predictions, an increased media spotlight and the constant reminder of how long Cub fans have been waiting for that elusive championship have any real bearing on how this team will fare in 2016?
I, for one, am skeptical.
I do admit narrative can be a power thing. Especially when it comes to the Chicago Cubs. Curses, jinxes and "Cubbie occurrences" seem to take on a life of their own and have made players and managers shake their head in disbelief over the years.
The media always seem to attach a higher meaning to everything that happens here. It's just the way it is.
But whether the Cubs are picked to win 120 games or to finish last, I fail to see how outside opinions and analysis have one bit to do with how Joe Maddon's ridiculously talented club will play this season.
To Maddon's credit, he hasn't sidestepped the attention. Quite the contrary, he coined the mantra for spring training with a three-word beauty, "Embrace the target," choosing to acknowledge the realistic goal of winning a World Series presently. Not sometime down the road, but this year.
Now that I think about it, he was talking about a World Series the day he got hired. And not in 2017 or 2018 but in 2015. When he said it I knew it would create some media and fan eye-rolls coming off a 73-win season the year before.
And technically, he did come up short of the target last year. But by a measly four games. That's not bad for a first try.
Maddon's approach to this job is built on a volume of work that stretches decades back to his minor league days in the Angels' system when he was a relative no-name.
The irony of his star power is that he isn't some "celebrity manager" who had a well-decorated playing career and received opportunities based on his fame. He paid his dues and then some and comes at this job from a blue-collar, lunch-pail angle.
That background suits him well here. He doesn't get overwhelmed by the hype. And as long as his players follow his lead, like they did last year, they should thrive in the spotlight.
• Len Kasper is entering his 12th season as the television play-by-play voice for the Chicago Cubs. Follow him on Twitter@LenKasper.