CHICAGO — The young core of the Cubs is learning with each long playoff run.
Coming off their first World Series title since 1908, the Cubs got off to a slow start last year and had to push themselves in the second half to overcome Milwaukee and win the NL Central. But they lined up with Washington in the first round of the playoffs and the grueling series with the Nationals took its toll, sending the Cubs on to a lopsided loss to rested Los Angeles in the next round.
The grind of a third straight trip to the NL Championship Series left an impression.
"I think it just teaches you how every year is so different," pitcher Kyle Hendricks said, "not just the season, but the offseason too, and how you get your body ready. For a lot of us young guys, I think we learned a lot between the 16-17 year and that offseason and I think we're using it to our advantage this year; just how much to rest, how much to work out, what you need to get ready."
The division is much improved, but the Cubs feel their championship window remains wide open. Hendricks and Jon Lester lead a solid rotation, and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein remains on the hunt for another starting pitcher on the eve of spring training. The lineup is deep and formidable, and the addition of veteran relievers Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek is expected to strengthen Chicago's bullpen after it faltered in the playoffs.
The Cubs also return with a little extra motivation after last year's playoff loss to the Dodgers.
"I think once you get there and it's not a fluke, guys have an attitude that they want to prove that they're worthy champions every year," Epstein said, "and we're still in position to play deep into October and hopefully put another one on the flagpole."
NEW LOOK: Joe Maddon is beginning his fourth year with Chicago, but the manager's coaching staff has several new faces. Pitching coach Chris Bosio and hitting coach John Mallee were let go after last season, and bench coach Dave Martinez was hired as Washington's manager. Jim Hickey takes over for Bosio, reuniting with Maddon after a long run together in Tampa Bay. Former major league outfielder Chili Davis is the new hitting coach, and Brandon Hyde replaces Martinez after spending the previous three seasons as the Cubs' first base coach.
ROOKIES TO WATCH: Right-hander Dillon Maples began last season with Class A Myrtle Beach, but rocketed through Chicago's system all the way to his major league debut in September. The 25-year-old Maples, known for his nasty slider, will get a chance to win a bullpen job this spring.
THEY'RE SET: The infield remains one of baseball's best groups, anchored by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo on the corners. Rizzo hit .273 with a team-high 32 homers and 109 RBIs last season, and Bryant batted .295 with 29 homers and 73 RBIs after winning the NL MVP award in 2016. The electric Javier Baez, who just turned 25 in December, also returns after setting career highs with 23 homers and 75 RBIs in his fourth season.
THEY'RE NOT: There is a reason why the Cubs are still looking another starting pitcher. Tyler Chatwood, who agreed to a $38 million, three-year contract in December, could benefit from a change of scenery after spending the previous five seasons with Colorado, but he has a 4.31 career ERA and lost 15 games last year. Mike Montgomery could join the rotation after working as a swingman last season, but that would leave Chicago dangerously thin in the event of an injury.
ON DECK: The lineup is always interesting with Maddon in charge, and it's worth watching again this spring. There is no obvious leadoff hitter, and whoever gets the job could create some intriguing questions lower in the order. Maddon could try Kyle Schwarber there again, but he struggled with the assignment a year ago. Albert Almora Jr. is another candidate, or maybe Rizzo could get the nod after he had a career-high .392 on-base percentage in 2017.