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A year later, guarantees turn to swagger for Cubs

The Cubs are descending on the city this week for Cubs Convention, projecting a little more swagger and a little less need for headline-grabbing declarations about how good they think they are.

Rising from last place to 97 wins and a National League Championship Series appearance, followed by a $278-million winter can do that for a team.

“No guarantees,” manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday when reminded of first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s assertion a year ago this week that the Cubs would go from last to first in the National League Central.

“I just like to believe we have a chance to replicate what we did last year,” said Maddon during a Cubs Caravan stop in which players and other team officials prepared and served meals for about 150 of the city’s homeless. “It’s up to us. Get to the playoffs, get deep in the playoffs and hopefully win eight more games.”

The Cubs haven’t made a big move in nearly a month, and Maddon said he doesn’t expect any more before opening spring training with newcomers that include $184-million outfielder Jason Heyward, $56 million second baseman Ben Zobrist and $32 million starting pitcher John Lackey.

No guarantees. But no ducking the expectations within the industry and reflected in the Cubs players.

“A big part of it is that guys that have never won learned how to win this year, and that matters a lot,” Maddon said. “And the guys we brought in know how to win.”

Even when reminded how close he came to backing up last year’s boast, Rizzo firmly pushed back.

“Were we close? We finished in third place,” he said. “If we win 97 games again I think we’ll be all right.”

Multiple media outlets have called the Cubs World Series favorites this year. This week alone, ESPN rated the Cubs’ infield as the top unit in the majors, and projected the Cubs will finish with baseball’s best record.

Of course, ask guys like Ryne Sandberg, Mark Prior or Alfonso Soriano how projections like those have worked out historically on the North Side.

And ask any medical staff in major league sports how often a team sidesteps serious injuries in consecutive years.

So no guarantees.

But the internal expectations are as high as the external ones. And some of the guys who played key roles in last fall’s success haven’t reached even their mid-20s.

And when the temperatures in Chicago are in Jake Arrieta-ERA range, and snow covers the ballpark, who can dispute the expectations or the confidence?

“I feel like we’re going to win the division,” said second-year slugger Kyle Schwarber, who joined the team in midseason last year.

“There’s probably going to be more targets on our backs,” he said. “So we’re going to have to come with our A game every day.

“But we know what we’re capable of, and I feel like if we keep working hard and we have the same attitude as we had last year — even better — the sky’s the limit for us.”

Rizzo’s only guarantee this time around:

“Last year’s over with. It’s time to gear up for 2016.”