Cubs’ Jed Hoyer: Underdog status puts ‘a chip on their shoulder’

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Hoyer: Underdog status put ‘a chip’ on Cubs’ shoulders originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Jake Arrieta’s interview answers are often elaborate. The pitcher dives into welcome detail and guides reporters through his thought processes. But this week, he kept the answer to one particular question short and direct.

Asked about the low outside expectations for the Cubs this year, Arrieta said: “We don't care about that. Honestly. That's it. I haven't heard of any of it, I haven't seen it, and it's irrelevant.”

The Cubs open the season Thursday against the Pirates at Wrigley Field, and those outside expectations haven’t shifted much over the spring. Betting sites project a losing record. PECOTA has the Cubs finishing third in the NL Central.

“It kind of gives our guys a little bit of a chip on their shoulder,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said when asked if he liked being an underdog this season.

A survey of the team would produce a similar dismissal of outside projections.

Asked last month about not being picked to win the division, Jason Heyward said: “Oh, I love that, not being picked to win. … Preseason numbers and picks don’t mean anything.”

Why are the Cubs being picked so low?

Last season’s offensive performance could have dampened expectations. But look at the track records of these hitters, guys like Kris Bryant and Javier Báez, and bounce back years should be expected.

The bullpen could play a part, without a household name after Craig Kimbrel. But the Cubs were in the same boat last season and turned their bullpen into a strength.

The most likely answer is the starting rotation. The Cubs traded ace Yu Darvish to the Padres this winter. Now only Adbert Aolzoaly throws in the mid-90s, and he’s a rookie. But Kyle Hendricks has already proven that a finesse pitcher can have the best ERA in the league – he posted an MLB-best 2.13 ERA in 2016.

“I know people will talk about how it's not a great group of starters or whatnot,” right-hander Zach Davies said, “just because of velocity and strikeouts and whatever. But I'll take five guys that are going to work their ass off in the rotation and compete every single game, compared to guys with just pure stuff.”

As Hoyer pointed out Wednesday, the Cubs weren’t the favorites to win the NL Central in 2015, either.

And they didn’t. But they did beat the division-winning Cardinals in the playoffs. That was the last time the Cubs could have been considered underdogs.

“That was a lot of fun,” Hoyer said of the 2015 season. “And it certainly would be a lot of fun to prove people wrong. But ultimately, I think we have an exceptionally talented group, I know these guys are excited to get going.”

At Wrigley Field on Wednesday, DJ Khaled and Drake’s “Popstar” blared from speakers as the Cubs warmed up in left field for their last workout before Opening Day. Even the cold didn’t deaden the energy in the ballpark.

“Whether we’re the underdog or not,” Hoyer said, “I think guys are excited and finally ready to be at the starting line.”

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