Rozner: Chicago Cubs ready to embrace the pressure

Exactly one year ago Tuesday, the same Chicago Cubs management team sat in the same upscale restaurant and at the very same table as they introduced Jon Lester and his $155 million contract.

This time, all the same people were in the same precise spots as they welcomed Jason Heyward and his $184 million contract.

But with the familiar view of Oak Street Beach and Michigan Avenue, the tone could not have been more different in December 2014 as the Cubs were hopeful that Lester might be able elevate the Cubs to mediocrity, perhaps helping them envision a path toward contention.

That was then. This is now.

And now they will be expected to reach the World Series.

Following a 97-win season, expectations are merely that the Cubs will capture the Central Division, skate through the National League playoffs and prepare Chicago for a championship party that hasn't been witnessed in 30 years, not since the '85 Bears returned from New Orleans with the Lombardi Trophy.

"Raised expectations, sure, but they would have been incredibly high regardless after a 97-win season," GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "If we hadn't signed Heyward, (Ben) Zobrist and John Lackey, there's no escaping that, but we still have to get past the Cardinals and Pirates."

That kind of anticipation from a starving fan base and critical media can smother a team quickly, but the Cubs are neither afraid of increased attention nor sorry that they will wear a target on their backs from Day 1 of spring training.

"You want expectations, right?" asked Hoyer. "We didn't go through what we went through building this up to have middling expectations. We want high expectations.

"And when you win 97 games and beat St. Louis in the playoffs and make significant additions, you're going to have high expectations.

"It's going to be a lot of fun next year and we think it's going to be fun around here for a long time, and that was the goal."

Circumstances being what they are, Cubs fans will expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 victories next season, so every minor slump is likely to cause mass hysteria.

But the Cubs are preparing themselves for that, too.

"Every season has ups and downs, but when you're not expected to win or when people have lowered expectations, those two- and three-game losing streaks are a little easier to handle," Hoyer said. "Having been in Boston when we were expected to win every year, we know people are watching every game on the edge of their seats.

"Now, you lose three in a row or six out of 10, they can become panic-button type moments. It's important for us to avoid that feeling as much as we can, but we have a great clubhouse dynamic and a great manager who's already talking to the guys about that."

Precisely 365 days ago, my conversation with Hoyer centered on higher expectations after three really rough years, and though the GM talked of improvement, he didn't dream of the 2015 season playing out the way it did.

"Truly, we had no idea last year," Hoyer said with a laugh. "We had so many young guys.

"Had we not been .500 or competitive, that would have been disappointing. But to get from (Kris) Bryant what we did? We didn't expect Addison Russell here in April, and Kyle Schwarber was at Indiana the year before. The kids were amazing.

"It was really fun. When you sneak up on people and have that kind of season and exceed expectations by so much, it's really fun.

"That enjoyment is over. Now we're expected to win and that will be fun, too, but it's definitely a different feeling."

That feeling is otherwise known as pressure, something Joe Maddon will ask his players to embrace and enjoy. But it will be new for the young players who haven't experienced what comes next.

"To a certain extent, those guys are just scratching the surface of their ability, but there's also adjustments that will have to be made," Hoyer said. "We don't have many guys who have a track record where you know exactly what they're gonna do.

"On the other hand, they have a huge upside and could explode.

"Last year we knew we needed to let the young guys grow. We told (Lester) there would be a point when we became more aggressive, but we didn't know when. The young guys coming along so fast put us where we are this winter, and allowed to get more aggressive quickly.

"The Central is so tough. We felt like in order to compete we had to get better, and we feel like we did."

Winning the winter is a guarantee of precisely nothing. Just ask the White Sox.

Injuries are always the scariest part. In 1985, the Cubs - after a division-winning season in 1984 - were cruising and in first place in June, before they lost all five starting pitchers.

The season went to pieces.

Crazy things happen in baseball. Making the tournament is hard and then it's merely an opportunity to get sent home quickly or get hot and go far.

But the Cubs have put themselves in a position to win a lot of games with a roster that appears unmatched in the National League.

What a difference a year makes.

• Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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