Biggest curse on Chicago Cubs this season comes from favourites tag

Gregg Patton writes that, in addition to the weight of history that always saddles the Chicago Cubs, they face the added uphill battle this season of being World Series favourites.

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon gestures as he talks to Jason Heyward during a spring training game last week. Jeff Chiu / AP / March 25, 2016
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The poor Chicago Cubs.

You have to feel sorry for manager Joe Maddon’s club. Not because they do not have one of the most formidable line-ups in the game.

Not because they have not added some excellent pieces to the team that won 97 games a year ago and breezed into the play-offs.

And not because they have not won a World Series since 1908, the longest stretch of heartache for any major sports franchise in North America.

No, it is because they are the consensus favourite of almost every forecaster to win the National League pennant and move on to the Series, where some are boldly predicting an end to their 108-year-old misery. It is not the curse of the Cubs. It is the curse of being lauded. It is baseball’s way. Taking down its awe-inspiring teams and anointing its underdogs in October.

This year, the Cubbies have replaced the Washington Nationals as the team to beat.

For the past several seasons, it has been the Nats that made forecasters swoon.

So what happened to those Washington clubs? Early exits in the post-season, and then last year’s stunning pratfall in which they failed to make the play-offs at all.

Could that actually happen to the Cubs?

It appears unlikely. Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta is still around to pitch on Opening Day against the Los Angeles Angels on Monday.

He will have a capable parade of fellow starters behind him, including left-hander Jon Lester, right-hander Kyle Hendricks and newcomer John Lackey.

Lackey’s arrival from their hated rivals, the St Louis Cardinals, even makes the Cards a little weaker.

But that was not all. The Cubs also signed free agent outfielder Jason Heyward away from St Louis.

The addition of Heyward, a stellar defender and steady hitter, has enabled the Cubs to put the gifted, but erratic, young talent Jorge Soler in a reserve role.

Soler, of course, would be starting for most MLB teams.

But it is almost criminal how much youthful brilliance the Cubs have in their line-up everyday.

Some think Most Valuable Player candidate Anthony Rizzo, the 26-year-old first baseman, might actually add to his 31 home runs and 101 runs batted in from 2015.

Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, 24, could be right there, too, after posting 26 homers and 99 RBI last season.

Two more “kids” who weren’t around on Opening Day last season, but had breakout seasons, will have a chance to do it from the beginning this time.

Left fielder Kyle Schwarber, 23, contributed 16 home runs and 43 RBI while playing less than half the time in 2015. Silky smooth defensive shortstop Addison Russell, 22, also was strong enough at the plate (13 homers) that he displaced veteran centrepiece Starlin Castro, now working as a New York Yankee.

That is how good things are around Wrigley Field these days. It is considered a demotion when you move from the Cubs to the mystique-laden Yankees.

Just for good measure, Chicago also picked up versatile veteran Ben Zobrist to play second base, after he helped the Kansas City Royals to their first championship in 30 years.

That would be the same Royals who were picked by almost no one to win anything last year. Fortunately for them, they still don’t seem to impress the experts.

Kansas City are just one of several American League teams that are confounding the prognosticators, who cannot seem to come to agreement on any one particular powerhouse.

So only the Cubs are challenging baseball’s fickle relationship with favourites. If Chicago do win it all, everyone will say it was expected.

But, really, they will have done it the hard way.

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