Nobody, but nobody, seems to be giving the Cubs a chance in 2012.
The annual Sports Illustrated baseball preview has the Cubs finishing with a record of 66-96. And you thought it couldn't get worse than last year's 71-91 season.
But you know what? The Cubs don't seem to care what the "experts" think.
"It doesn't really mean a thing to me," said new team president Theo Epstein, who was brought in from Boston to turn the Cubs into perennial contenders. "I probably prefer it that way. Sometimes high expectations can be tough to live up to.
"We have parallel tracks here. We've been transparent about it all along. We're going to do everything we can to compete and make this a very meaningful season in 2012. We're also trying to build a championship caliber organization for the long haul. Nothing that anyone says about either pursuit will derail us."
That seems to go double for pitcher Ryan Dempster, who will be making his second straight opening-day start Thursday when the Cubs play the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field.
"We got a plan of what we want to do," said Dempster, a Cub since 2004. "So we go out there and play the game the right way and play hard and let our talent take over. All this hard work we've put in these last six weeks, hopefully it turns into the results we want out on the field."
It will be up to the Cubs to prove prognosticators wrong.
Truth be told, they haven't done a whole lot to inspire confidence for 2012 other than hiring a new and progressive front office, headed by Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and scouting-player development chief Jason McLeod. Epstein and Hoyer hired Dale Sveum as field manager, and Sveum won rave reviews for the businesslike and disciplined spring training he ran.
There remain valid questions about this team. First baseman Carlos Pena and third baseman Aramis Ramirez are gone, taking with them their combined 54 home runs from last season. New third baseman Ian Stewart hit no major-league home runs during an injury-plagued 2011, and first baseman Bryan LaHair is a career minor-leaguer who, at 29, is hoping to complete his first full major-league season.
The offense as a whole may be on-base challenged until Epstein and his crew can work onto the roster players who see pitches, draw walks and swing at mostly strikes.
The starting rotation has three new members, including Jeff Samardzija, who went from the bullpen to No. 3 starter.
And even Epstein admitted last week that he and Hoyer traded away two good bullpen parts in Sean Marshall and Andrew Cashner.
Epstein admits things may not look good to those in the prediction business, but he concedes nothing to them.
"That's why we're here, to contend," he said. "We're not giving anything away. I think there's been an incredible amount of hard work put in by Dale and the coaching staff, and most importantly, the players, to put ourselves in position to go out there and compete and win. There's a significant amount of talent here.
"That said, it's a very competitive landscape. We're going to have to have a lot of things go our way. We're going to have to earn a lot of victories in close games to put us in position where we look up in the middle of the year and we're in it. Nothing will be given to us. If you listen to the prognosticators, if you look at it on paper, it's probably an uphill battle. That doesn't mean we're giving anything away.
"The goal here is to get into the playoffs and win a World Series. We start out on equal footing. So we'll make our way this season."
Given what they've got, there's only one thing the Cubs can do.
"Hard work and playing the game at a high intensity can make up for lack of talent a lot of times," Dempster said. "It has for me. I don't have much talent, but I try to work hard and play the game the right way. And sometimes, it becomes contagious. It just becomes a way to get the best out of each other. We're all big-leaguers, and we've got a chance to have a lot of success here."
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