ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) - The Chicago Cubs are loaded with pitching, power and playoff experience. A franchise that hasn't won the World Series in 108 years opens the season Monday night as a strong contender to reign in October.
Chicago's most anticipated season in generations begins just down the street from Disneyland, but these Cubs are no Cinderellas.
"I think the expectations are wonderful," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Sunday. "Pressure is a wonderful word. And if you channel it properly, it's going to make you better."
Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta takes the mound against Garrett Richards and the Los Angeles Angels to open a year of enormous expectations and thrilling possibilities. Thousands of the longest-suffering fans in baseball will be at Angel Stadium to herald the start.
The Cubs haven't shied away from the spotlight trained on their talent — or the accompanying magnification from the franchise's 1908 World Series drought.
"If you ask the guys in here, it makes the game even more fun," Maddon said. "I mean, why would you want to go to a ballpark with 10,000 people, and you're predicted to finish last? Why would you ever want to be there? I've been there, actually. And it's no fun. I'd much rather have a raucous and crazy ballpark with a great fan base and high expectations, and try to live up to those."
The Cubs won 97 games last season, only good for third in the brutally competitive NL Central, but reached the Championship Series with a series of gritty playoff performances. They got even better in the offseason, adding slugger Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey to a team already bursting with young talent.
"When you have a team that's already won 97 games, and then you have the talent level that we've added, there's high expectations," catcher David Ross said. "We embrace that. We're excited about that. We're excited about having those guys on board, because they're going to make us better in so many different ways."
The Cubs begin the two-game interleague series against Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and the Angels, who missed the playoffs on the final day of their 85-win season last fall. Aside from the wondrous Trout, the Angels have only a fraction of the Cubs' young talent despite missing the playoffs in five of the last six seasons.
"(The Cubs) have a great team, but this is not about who's the favorite," said Pujols, the Cardinals' longtime slugger. "This is about who plays better when you cross that white line. So I wouldn't fall asleep to Cardinals and Pirates, because they're going to have tough teams. It's going to be a tough division over there."
Richards will make his first opening day start for the Angels, taking over the role from longtime ace Jered Weaver. While he hasn't matched Arrieta's extraordinary numbers, Richards has won 28 games over the last two seasons with power, control and improved secondary pitches.
"He has grown into that pitcher that his talent said he could be," manager Mike Scioscia said. "So he's definitely earned the honor of going out there and throwing the first game for us."
Shortstop Andrelton Simmons and third baseman Yunel Escobar will make their Angels debuts, and veteran Daniel Nava should take over in left field. The Angels coveted Heyward to fill that gaping hole in their lineup before deciding they couldn't get anywhere near the $184 million deal given to him by the Cubs.
Maddon knows Anaheim well from 30 years with the organization as a player, scout and minor league manager before 12 seasons as a big league coach, including three stints as the Angels' interim manager and six years as Scioscia's bench coach.
But Maddon is focused on a season of limitless possibilities for his Cubs.
"We're going to have our rough moments," Maddon said. "But I think we have the ability mentally and physically to fight through those moments. If you factor in everything — experience, talent level, the motivation of the group — they want to become a part of the first team that wins a World Series for the Cubs in a long, long time. So there's so many good things that can repel pressure and expectations."