One way or another, Cubs superstars will have to lead the way in 2021

If the Cubs expect to win this season, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras will have to play like stars.

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AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Fans will be welcomed back into Wrigley Field for the first time since 2019 on Thursday. Even with health and safety protocols and limited capacity in place, this Opening Day has many feeling normal for the first time in a while.

Normal is exactly what the Cubs are hoping for from their stars as they begin their 162-game journey against the Pirates. The members of their offensive core are coming off woeful 2020 seasons, and the Cubs think they’re due for a major rebound.

All eyes will be on third baseman Kris Bryant, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Javy Baez and catcher Willson Contreras. The first three will be eligible for free agency after the season, and all are key to the Cubs’ success this season.

‘‘We feel like our superstars are going to be the ones that carry us,’’ manager David Ross said. ‘‘The everyday players are the guys we’re gonna rely on to do what they know how to do. These guys have been winners for a long time, so we’re going to ride those guys, and we’ve got great complementary pieces to that group.’’

When the Cubs’ offense is clicking, their lineup rivals any in the game. And with the addition of left fielder Joc Pederson, who had a monster spring, the lineup might be even deeper this season.

But starting fast will be a must, and the competition in the National League Central will be tight after the Brewers and Cardinals made additions. And with so much of the Cubs’ future riding on this season, having a clear-cut direction going into June and July will be imperative.

‘‘I think it kind of gives our guys a little bit of a chip on their shoulder,’’ president Jed Hoyer said. ‘‘I think it’s been at least five years in a row we’ve been picked to win the division and kind of were the clear favorite. In 2015, we weren’t picked to win, and we had a great season. That was a lot of fun. It certainly would be a lot of fun to prove people wrong.

‘‘But, ultimately, I think we have an exceptionally talented group, and I know these guys are excited to get going. So whether we’re the underdog or not, I think guys are excited and kind of finally ready to be at the starting line.’’

There was a level of excitement and quiet confidence at camp this spring, but all the confidence and experience in the world doesn’t mean anything without results. For a team with so much on the line collectively and individually, the results will matter.

‘‘I don’t think there’s going to be any pressure on them to do anything different than the years before because you still want success, even if it’s not your contract year,’’ hitting coach Anthony Iapoce said. ‘‘Those guys are still trying to win games while also being individuals and putting up numbers. At times, they’ll take away from the numbers to help the team win. You saw that last year with guys doing things.’’

Unlike some of their past teams and even after winning the division last season, the Cubs don’t have the national allure they did several years ago. But they aren’t letting any projections or predictions determine whether they will succeed.

‘‘We don’t care about that, honestly,’’ right-hander Jake Arrieta said. ‘‘That’s it, really. I haven’t heard any of it. I haven’t seen it. It’s irrelevant.’’

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