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Chicago Cubs looking for fast start in 2018

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

By JAY COHEN

AP Sports Writer

CHICAGO (AP) The Chicago Cubs remember what it was like in 2016, and they remember what happened last year. They remember all the fun they had two years ago, and how tired they were at the end of last season.

The past two years could hold the key to how they perform in 2018.

"These guys absolutely get it. They're on a mission, no question," manager Joe Maddon said. "They want to go back to what happened in 2016. They didn't like what happened last year, but they kind of understand what did (happen) and how we worked through it and eventually almost got back to our goal."

One of the big differences between the World Series-winning 2016 team and last year's group was the start of the season. The Cubs struggled at the beginning of last season and then pushed hard to overcome the Brewers and win the NL Central. After surviving a grueling playoff round against Washington, they were run over by the rested Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series.

Chicago's 25-6 start in 2016 set up the whole year. The Cubs had time to prepare for the playoffs and won their first title since 1908.

Lesson learned.

"We want to start out this year a little different," veteran infielder Ben Zobrist said.

All the pieces are in place. The Cubs signed Yu Darvish to a $126 million, six-year contract in February, creating one of the majors' best rotations. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant anchor a talented lineup that also includes the electric Javier Baez, coming off a career-high 23 homers and 75 RBIs. Brandon Morrow replaces Wade Davis at closer after agreeing to a $21 million, two-year deal in December.

"We reached the World Series in '16 and won it and one step to it last year and I think that it sat in everyone's stomach and we weren't satisfied," slugger Kyle Schwarber said. "Even with the players that we've added, they know what's expected here. Definitely a different demeanor rolling in. Everyone's hungry. Everyone showed up ready to roll."

Here are a couple more things to watch this year with the Cubs, who begin the season on March 29 in Miami for the opener of a 10-game trip:

FOR STARTERS

The biggest beneficiaries of the Darvish deal might be Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood, who were pushed back to the last two spots in the rotation when the Japanese right-hander joined the team.

Quintana went 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts with the Cubs last year after he was acquired in a blockbuster deal with the crosstown White Sox in July. Chatwood, who signed a $38 million, three-year contract with Chicago over the winter, also could benefit from a change of scenery after he spent his last five seasons with Colorado.

Chicago's rotation is fronted by Jon Lester, who went 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA in 32 starts last year, and Kyle Hendricks, who missed part of last season with pain in the middle finger of his right hand, but had a 2.19 ERA in his final 13 starts after the All-Star break.

NICE LIFE

One of Maddon's biggest challenges will be finding time for everyone to play. Zobrist, who turns 37 in May and was hampered by a right wrist injury last season, likely will bounce around again after making at least 13 starts at three different positions last year. Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. likely will share time in center, and Baez could play all over the infield.

"It's a really talented group," Maddon said.

SUPER BRYANT

While Bryant dropped from 102 RBIs in 2016 to 73 last season, the third baseman improved on several of his numbers from his MVP season two years ago. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 amateur draft set career bests with a .295 batting average, .409 on-base percentage, 38 doubles and 95 walks. He also hit 29 homers.

Bryant, who turned 26 in January, has been one of the majors' most consistent performers since his debut with the Cubs in 2015.

"The goal is to win the World Series," he said. "That will always be the goal from here on out. We have a great group here ready to do it again."

BEST CASE

A slimmer Schwarber bounces back after struggling last season, the rotation stays healthy and the Cubs get their usual production from Bryant and Rizzo on the way to their second championship in three years.

WORST CASE

Morrow flops in the closer role, the deep lineup and rotation are decimated by injuries and the improved NL Central keeps Chicago out of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

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Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

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More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

Updated March 22, 2018

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