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After winning winter, Cubs start trying to win October

That the Cubs will carry a target on their backs every time they take the field this year is clear to everyone from the clubhouse to front office, a challenge manager Joe Maddon plans to “embrace.”

But the biggest fight the Cubs might have on their hands as spring training opens this week is the sheer magnitude of expectations inside and outside the organization after winning 97 games, beating the Pirates and Cardinals in the playoffs and then pulling off $276 million of acquisitions that have made the Cubs America’s favorites to win the 2016 World Series.

Can this season be considered successful if the Cubs don’t win it all? That’s been one of the most common conversations about the team on social media and among on-air talking heads since the Cubs finished “winning the off-season” with their $184 million signing of outfielder Jason Heyward.

“On paper’s one thing,” another Cubs newcomer, John Lackey, said. “We’ve got to go out and get it done.”

Lackey, who won World Series clinchers for two different teams, knows the fragile nature of baseball expectations as well as anyone in the clubhouse – part of Boston’s epic 2011 September collapse and leader in an odds-beating 2013 Boston championship two years later. That’s part of why he was signed.

Cubs president Theo Epstein certainly didn’t set out to win anything during the winter.

“It is an unbelievable dynamic the last few years how the winners of the offseason tend to be miserable the following September,” he said even before the team’s flurry of moves in December. “I look forward to one day when we might lose the offseason altogether because it’ll probably mean that we had so many different options internally to address whatever needs arose during the previous season. We’re not in that position yet.”

But they are sitting on an enviable lode of talent and potential as pitchers and catcher report Friday in Mesa, Ariz. – one of the biggest national storylines in baseball as they chase their 108-year-old ghost.

The only certainty at this point is how foolish it is to count on expectations to unfold according to plan for 162 games – much less to make the only measure of success a title in a sport almost unique for how many of the best teams often fall short.

Injuries? Ask the 1985 Cubs, who had four starters on the disabled list at the same time and failed to live up to their magical ’84.

Wrong division at the wrong time? Ask the 1993 Giants, who won 103 games and missed the playoffs.

Face the hot pitcher in a short series? Ask anyone who faced Madison Bumgarner in October of 2014.

Or catch the dreaded hot team in October? Ask the heavy favorites beaten by the 1973 Mets, 1987 Twins or 2006 Cardinals.

Epstein admittedly pooled a lot of resources into this offseason to take advantage of both the deeper markets of available players as well as what looks like an especially strong window of immediate opportunity for the Cubs.

But he also is the first to admit the tenuous nature of best-laid plans in his business.

“Our goal all along is to win the World Series,” Epstein said when asked about what seems like an accelerated timeline for a title. “But you have to prioritize shorter-term goals in order to get there.

“The first goal is just to come together as a team and grind through the season, knowing there’s going to be a lot of adversity along the way, knowing we have to connect as a unit in order to play well and persevere.”

That’s as much what this spring training will be about for this team as cutoff drills and pitchers fielding practice. A youth-veteran mix that grew together into a 2015 National League force integrates several new personalities among key additions that include Heyward (third team in three years after a trade from the Braves and free agency from the Cardinals), second baseman Ben Zobrist (from the Royals by way of the A’s by way of the Rays) and Lackey (who at least has the comfort level of former World Series-winning Red Sox teammates Jon Lester and David Ross).

“Then you want to make sure you get into October, and the best way to do that by far is to win your division,” Epstein said. “So like last year our goal is to win the division. And there’s no doubt every player who had to watch the Mets celebrate on the field is extraordinarily hungry to win eight more games in October than we did last year.

“We’re unified by that common goal,” he said. “It’s the most important thing in the lives of a lot of people – fans, players, front office alike. And we’re out to reach our goals this year and make a lot of people happy, knowing that there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs along the way.”