What’s the Cubs’ biggest need entering spring training?
Ask team president Theo Epstein, and his first answer is the one he gave last year and likely will give for the next four: pitching.
The Cubs’ never-ending quest for pitching depth aside, Epstein is quick to add one potentially enormous challenge for the team this year, one as rare as its World Series championship last fall.
“Generally speaking, teams that win it all sometimes face unique challenges, where a lot of things come up that pull everyone associated with the organization in different directions,” he said. “And locking back into that team-first, competitive, connected mindset is really important.
“That’s where having such character guys is important, and I really trust our group to get locked back in again.”
Epstein, of course, faced the same challenge as the Red Sox’ general manager in 2005 after their first championship in 86 years.
But it’s hard to imagine that even his Red Sox experience will match the competing distractions for this long-suffering franchise and its wildly celebrated players.
These guys did more than make the rounds on the national talk-show circuit, like those Red Sox did. They twerked on “Saturday Night Live,” where they also sang “Go Cubs Go” with Bill Murray. Jimmy Buffet crashed their White House visit last month. Anthony Rizzo was recognized by someone while vacationing in Thailand. Ben Zobrist signed autographs on his front lawn. National League MVP Kris Bryant and his bride received piles of wedding gifts from fans. Even rookie relief pitcher Carl -Edwards Jr., a South Carolina native, was honored this month by the South Carolina state legislature for his part in the Cubs’ championship.
How does anyone top that?
Maybe they don’t.
But that doesn’t change the job they face. And it doesn’t make it any easier to win it all again as they enter a second consecutive spring favored to do just that.
In 14 seasons running baseball departments for two franchises, Epstein has had eight playoff teams and three World Series champs, and he helped end the two most storied “curses” in American team sports.
One thing his teams haven’t done is repeat, although the Red Sox won 95 games and reached the playoffs again in 2005.
“The primary reason why it’s hard to repeat is just because it’s really difficult to win the World Series,” he said. “In any given year, if you’re any old team, you have a 3 percent chance. If you’re the best team, you might have a 10-12 percent chance. It’s just hard to do.”
Throw in a post-title celebration of the century, and the challenges can increase.
“When you win, you get pulled in a lot of different directions,” Epstein said. “And there can be a tendency to at some point, no matter how high the character, to start thinking about yourself a little bit more.
“You have to work really hard — we all do — to avoid any kind of organizational arrogance, any sense of entitlement, to really understand that of all the great things that happened last year, the most special aspect was we all got to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.”
Obviously, confidence and late-October experience are significant advantages the Cubs will take into the spring, along with one of the more talented rosters in the majors.
But the Cubs need to take care of one order of business early in camp that has nothing to do with Jon Lester’s pickoff move or live batting practice.
“It’s important to opt back into that mindset, to buy back into being a team player, to being a team-centric player, a [team]-centric organization,” Epstein said. “To let the players bond, let them buy in, let them be unselfish and go do their thing and try to do it all over again.
“I don’t worry about our group, but some teams, after winning, other things creep in and get in the way of that bonding.”