If anybody thought what the Cubs did last season was tough, consider what they’re up against this season.
Trying to do it again.
The Cubs vanquished their own century of ghosts with their historic World Series victory last fall, but to repeat — even with what many think is a better team — will take bucking an industry trend that only has become stronger in recent decades.
‘‘It’s a hard thing to win one, let alone two in a row,’’ said Cy Young runner-up Jon Lester, the Cubs’ opening night starter Sunday, who has three championships. ‘‘All we can do is play hard and do little things to get better and see what happens during the season.’’
If they reach the playoffs again, then they roll the dice on what has become a postseason crapshoot because of the advent of division play in 1969, the dawn of free agency in the 1970s and the addition of wild-card teams in the 1990s.
‘‘After a World Series, you do kind of either get complacent or get even hungrier now that you’ve tasted it,’’ Cubs president Theo Epstein said. ‘‘There’s no real in-between. I’ve never doubted for a second that our group of guys will be extremely hungry.”
A repeat champion is so rare in baseball that it has happened only once in Addison Russell’s lifetime, when the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000.
The last time a National League team did it, not even John Lackey was around. In fact, the Big Red Machine of 1975 and ’76 is the only NL team to do it in the last 95 years.
What makes anyone think this group of Cubs will be different, playing for a franchise that took 108 years just to win one?
‘‘This is a way different animal because we’re so much younger,’’ said pitcher Lackey, whose title with the Cubs was his third, each with a different franchise. ‘‘They were more veteran teams that I won it with the last couple of times.
‘‘I think the youth is really going to help us [avoid] a hangover because they still have that energy, they’re still trying to prove themselves, they’re still trying to go to arbitration, they’ve still got a lot in front of them.’’
GalleryThe Cubs bring back their top four starting pitchers from the top-ranked staff in baseball last season. They bolstered their bullpen. They have reason to think Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras might make the top fielding team in 2016 a little better. And the NL most valuable player, the All-Star shortstop and the two-time postseason hitting star are all 25 or younger.
‘‘That’s kind of unique in this game,’’ Lester said. ‘‘You don’t see teams like ours around this league.’’
But Lester’s 2007 Red Sox champions returned much of their core, won 95 games and had the lead in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series before the Rays, who were managed by Joe Maddon, came back to eliminate them.
‘‘It’s hard to look at that year and say we had any problems,’’ said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, who was Epstein’s assistant GM in that Red Sox front office. ‘‘That’s a pretty good follow-up year.’’
Hoyer said he and Epstein draw on that experience now, as well as on the experience of falling short the year after their curse-busting 2004 title in Boston, despite another 95-victory season for a team with more turnover.
‘‘If you try to keep things exactly the same, they’re going to change anyway,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘That’s life, and that’s baseball.’’
The Cubs are World Series favorites in Las Vegas again, despite history working against them. And if they stay healthy, it’s hard to imagine they won’t have a good shot heading into October.
Second baseman Ben Zobrist, the World Series MVP last season after winning a ring with the 2015 Royals, said the length of the previous season and shorter offseason are among the factors that work against any team trying to repeat.
‘‘The Giants have been so good the last six [or] seven years, and you kind of saw after they won it every year, it was a lull for them. So we know it’s a great challenge for us this year, trying to figure out how to get back there.’’
Since the Yankees’ most recent run, the Giants have been the closest thing to a dynasty, winning in 2010, ’12 and ’14 but failing to make the playoffs in each of the years after those championships.
‘‘It just shows you how difficult it is,’’ Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. ‘‘Getting there is probably a little easier than winning the whole thing because so many variables are involved. Who’s the hottest team? Who’s got the hottest pitchers going? One pitcher can dominate, as you saw in ’14 [with Madison Bumgarner].’’
In 2011, the Giants lost heart-and-soul catcher Buster Posey to injury. In 2013, they didn’t pitch as well after their long ’12 season. In 2015, the rise of the Cubs played a factor, knocking them out of playoff position in August.
‘‘It’s not one common denominator that’s going to keep you from getting there,’’ Bochy said. ‘‘You’ve got to stay healthy. Obviously, you need your guys to have their normal good years. But once you get there, it does become a bit of a crapshoot.
‘‘I don’t know if the best teams win it all the time. That’s why you have wild-card teams get in there. We’ve done it. Other wild-card teams have done it.’’
Bochy’s 2014 team was the fifth wild-card team to win a World Series and the 10th to reach one in 13 years.
And if there’s any lingering hangover at all?
‘‘The more success you have, oftentimes the less hungry you become,’’ said Royals GM Dayton Moore, whose team lost Game 7 of the World Series in 2014, won the Series in ’15 and missed the playoffs last season. ‘‘Every major-league season presents tough challenges that every team has to overcome, and you have to have the same relentlessness that you had in pursuing the championship if you’re going to repeat.’’
Maddon, the third-year Cubs manager, tried to address that with his ‘‘uncomfortable’’ theme this spring.
‘‘The moment that you get comfortable with what you had done, then the threat is that you’re not going to push yourself to the point where you need to again,’’ he said. ‘‘All this [is] psychological crap I’m throwing at you right here, but all this stuff matters.’’
Said right fielder Jason Heyward: ‘‘The most important thing it did for me was just make me hungry and made me feel like this is obviously fun, that this is what you want. But don’t stop there. Challenge yourself to work hard, work smart and try to get back to that same position again.’’
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Seven franchises in major league history have repeated as World Series champs, including the Cubs (1907-08). The Yankees have six streaks ranging from two in a row to five; only two teams have done it in the wild-card era (National League teams in bold):
- New York Yankees 1998-2000 (3)
- Toronto Blue Jays 1992-93
- New York Yankees 1977-78
- Cincinnati Reds 1975-76
- Oakland Athletics 1972-74 (3)
- New York Yankees 1961-62
- New York Yankees 1949-53 (5)
- New York Yankees 1936-39 (4)
- Philadelphia Athletics 1929-30
- New York Yankees 1927-28
- New York Giants 1921-22
- Boston Red Sox 1915-16
- Philadelphia Athletics 1910-11
- Chicago Cubs 1907-08
Notes: The A’s three-peat marked the first repeat champion since the leagues were split into divisions; the 1977-78 Yankees, the first of the free agency era.