Cubs looking for breakthrough season

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CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 03:  The Chicago Cubs new manager Joe Maddon answers questions during a press conference at Wrigley Field on November 3, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) By David Banks CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 03: The Chicago Cubs new manager Joe Maddon answers questions during a press conference at Wrigley Field on November 3, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) By David Banks

MESA, Ariz. (AP) -- Joe Maddon is in camp. Same for Jon Lester, and the rest of Chicago's improved pitching staff.

The encouraging offseason is over. The Cubs are ready to get down to work for what they hope will be a big year.

"There's a great mood in camp, a great mood among our fan base," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Thursday as pitchers and catchers reported to the Cubs' spring facility. "It's the right time to get excited, then try to keep that going and get off to a good start."

It's the first camp for Maddon since the manager opted out of his contract with Tampa Bay and was hired by Chicago in October. Rick Renteria was fired after one season because Epstein felt the organization had to pounce on Maddon while he was available.

Maddon had a 754-705 record in nine seasons in Tampa Bay, leading the club to four playoff appearances, two AL East titles and a five-game loss to Philadelphia in the 2008 World Series. The two-time AL Manager of the Year was the bench coach for six seasons under Angels manager Mike Scioscia before he was hired by Tampa Bay in November 2005.

He takes over a club with some key pieces already in place, and a group of touted prospects that could reach the majors soon, led by third baseman Kris Bryant and shortstop Addison Russell.

"I'm not here to make any bold predictions, except that every spring I go to camp, I expect to go to the playoffs," Maddon said.

That's heady stuff for a franchise with a streak of five consecutive losing seasons, but first baseman Anthony Rizzo said everyone on the team is more upbeat than in past years.

"The expectations are set at a higher bar this year," said Rizzo, who hit a career-high 32 homers last season. "We're all excited for it."

One reason for the optimism is the addition of Lester, who agreed to a $155 million, six-year contract during free agency. The left-hander went 16-11 with a 2.46 ERA with Oakland and Boston last year.

Right-hander Jason Hammel also returned to Chicago for a $20 million, two-year contract, and catcher Miguel Montero came over in a trade.

"We recognize we haven't done anything yet. But you still feel good about where you work, you feel good about what's ahead if we work hard enough to earn it," Epstein said. "I wouldn't want to do these last three years over, as hard as it was at times at the big league level, as tough as it was on our fans; it will be that much sweeter when we get where we want to go.

"We like where we are."

Epstein repeatedly praised the fans who stuck with the team through his first three years in charge, including last year's 73-89 mark.

"Not everything has gone exactly according to plan," he said. "I've made mistakes along the way. We've made mistakes as an organization.

"But by and large, I think we've performed at a pretty high level. A building process sometimes in baseball can take five or six years. We've made a lot of progress in three years."

The Cubs also announced plans on Thursday to pay tribute to Hall of Fame slugger Ernie Banks, who died last month at the age of 83. The team will wear No. 14 hats during Chicago's split-squad spring games on March 5, and a No. 14 patch on its home and away jerseys this season.

The franchise also will honor Banks in a pregame ceremony before its first game of the season at Wrigley Field on April 5.