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A Cubs-Red Sox World Series?

It’s not too early to beat the drum. Both teams are favorites to win their division and league. This should have happened last season in what could have been a World Series bonanza, but the Red Sox were upset by the Indians, who had no business beating the Sox given the pitching matchups were squarely in Boston’s favor.

So we’ll see 1) how hungry the Red Sox are to get where they should have gone a year ago, and 2) how motivated and hungry the Cubs are to get back to the Series and win two in a row.

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Theo Epstein is certainly intrigued by a matchup of the teams he’s led to titles, but he’s not about to join the drumbeat for the Red Sox.

Epstein knows you don’t evaluate a team based on spring training record. Instead, attitude, effort, execution, and wanting to compete and win are the important barometers this time of year.

Epstein sees those things in his Cubs.

Epstein understands the difficulty in repeating. Despite his best efforts, the 2005 Red Sox won 95 games after breaking the Curse but were swept out of the Division Series by the White Sox. His 2008 Red Sox also won 95 games following a World Series title but again couldn’t get back to the Series, losing a seven-game ALCS to the Rays.

“In ’08, if one pitch goes the right way we’d have been back in the World Series,” Epstein said from Cubs camp in Mesa, Ariz., last week. “The thing about it is, after you win you get pulled in so many different directions the following year. It’s hard to keep that focus, but so far I think our team has been able to do that.”

Epstein certainly has learned from those seasons. Can he repeat this time? Some things will be out of his control, but the Cubs remain a very talented team, one that will try to avoid complacency. This is where Joe Maddon comes into play. He’s considered one of the best managers in baseball, and now we’ll see just how good he is.

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Can we dream of a Cubs-Red Sox World Series? The oddsmakers, the analytic experts, and the media all think it’s possible.

David J. Phillip/AP

Epstein has the experience to avoid the season-after shortfall.

“It’s a long spring training so we decided to ease guys into it,” Epstein said. “I’ve been impressed with [our] attitude. We’ve given our young prospects a chance to play and they’ve been great. [Outfielder] Eloy Jimenez and [second baseman] Ian Happ, [third baseman] Jeimer Candelario have been the talk of camp. There’s been no complacency whatsoever. They seem hungry again.”

Sure, key players such as Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Wade Davis, Jake Arrieta, and Brett Anderson haven’t played well this spring. But does it matter? Probably not. What you don’t want is guys having problems getting back into the flow.

Like with any team, change is inevitable. Epstein believes too much tinkering isn’t good, but not enough tinkering could be a death sentence. The Cubs landed somewhere in the middle this offseason.

David Ross retired. He may have been the backup catcher, but he was also the team leader, Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and a guy everyone loved.

“I think we have enough leadership on our team now that we can absorb David’s loss in that area,” Epstein said. “I think David taught other guys how to be leaders by example and we have that now.”

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Joe Maddon has gone 200-123 in two seasons as the Cubs’ manager.
Joe Maddon has gone 200-123 in two seasons as the Cubs’ manager.Charlie Riedel/AP

Surely he was speaking about Anthony Rizzo, Lester, John Lackey, Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell.

Epstein also has an arsenal of younger players as trade material if he needs to upgrade the starting rotation — he could probably put together a package to land the Rays’ Chris Archer, who cut his teeth under Maddon in Tampa Bay.

We know Epstein loves to make deals and he isn’t shy about giving up prospects, especially redundant ones. Candelario is blocked by Bryant at third base, for instance.

There’ll be reliance on Davis to close and stay healthy. There’ll be pressure for Bryant to repeat his MVP season. We will see whether Zobrist, who turns 36 in May, can still perform at a high level. Ditto for Lackey, who’s 38.

There’s also much discussion on whether Heyward can make a difference offensively. He won a Gold Glove in right field last season and his interpersonal skills are off the charts, but he hit just .230 last season, with seven homers, 49 RBIs, and a .631 OPS, and he needs to provide much more than that with a $28 million salary in 2017.

The Cubs, who have won 200 games over the past two seasons, could continue to dominate the NL Central. The Pirates and Cardinals will be competitive but likely not strong enough to unseat the best team in baseball.

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The Cubs come to Fenway April 28-30 for an interleague series. It could be a prelude to the inevitable.

LONG ODDS

Pirates’ plan is to simply compete

The big thing for Clint Hurdle and Pittsburgh will be pitching.
The big thing for Clint Hurdle and Pittsburgh will be pitching.David Goldman/AP

So how do you deal with being in the same division as the monster Cubs?

It’s certainly crossed Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle’s mind.

“That’s what sport is all about,” said Hurdle, a philosopher and motivator. “The ability to go out and play on grass. You don’t play on paper. It wasn’t a ‘monster’ until two years ago. There’s a lot of stories that were written over the winter. You’re writing about different players now. It’s a different story in Boston now.

“To compare things in life is one of the most dangerous things you can ever do. Be who you are. Know who you are and like who you are. That will get us to the place where we need to go. We know what kind of market we play in.

“We know what it takes to win baseball games. We believe we can do that against anybody. They haven’t lost that edge. In fact, three [straight] trips to the playoffs and to not make it [last year] left a bitter taste in the mouths of all those men. We have to do something about it and it starts in spring training with work and commitment and this is the only sport where you use the word ‘sacrifice.’ That’s where we are.”

The healthy returns of ace Gerrit Cole and right fielder Andrew McCutchen will be a big help.

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Hurdle pointed out that a “healthy Cole and McCutchen has led to pretty successful seasons in Pittsburgh.

“Look at Cole’s numbers and look what McCutchen could do in same three-year window. That’s pretty impressive. We believe in human analytics as well as analytics. We believe in our men.”

The Pirates received numerous inquiries on McCutchen this offseason, teams feeling they could get a discounted version of the hitter who had a .917 OPS between 2013-15. Last year was the first season he’s struggled.

Hurdle decided to alter his outfield alignment this season, moving McCutchen from center to right, Starling Marte from left to center, and Gregory Polanco from right to left.

But the big thing for Pittsburgh will be its pitching. It has eight starters competing for five spots, but in reality the Pirates could surely use White Sox lefty Jose Quintana and they’ve been trying to trade for him.

“We had four starters with an ERA of over 5.00, so that was an outlier for us,” Hurdle said. “I’ve said it all along, when you have to use your bullpen as opposed to using it when you want to, it changes the whole dynamic of everything.”

Apropos of nothing

1. Ivan Calderon would have turned 55 on Sunday. I remember going to Puerto Rico in February of 1993 to do a story on Calderon, who had been acquired by the Red Sox from the Expos for Terry Powers and Mike Gardiner. The Red Sox were having problems getting in touch with Calderon after the trade. When I got to his seaside condo in San Juan, we sat and chatted and the phone was ringing off the hook. I said, “Ivan, I think that might be Lou Gorman trying to reach you.” He just dismissed it like, “OK, I’ll talk to them soon.” Calderon introduced me to cockfighting, which, so gruesome and bloody, left me unable to eat chicken for years. But he was an interesting guy. Sadly, he was murdered in 2003 at age 41, when two mobsters executed him at a bar in Loiza, Puerto Rico.

Ruben Amaro Jr. is entering his second season as the Red Sox’ first base coach.
Ruben Amaro Jr. is entering his second season as the Red Sox’ first base coach.David Goldman/AP

2. Just a feeling, but it looks to me that Ruben Amaro Jr. is going to manage in the majors someday. That would be quite a story, considering he’s been a player, a general manager, and a coach.

3. The WBC has been a smashing success on the field, with exciting games, stellar plays, and colorful players who have made it fun. If MLB could package this type of excitement for the regular season, baseball would be king. The tournament reached record crowds for the first round with 621,851 fans, a 34 percent increase over the previous high of 463,017 in 2013. The tournament hasn’t received much media coverage, however.

4. Speaking of the WBC, there’s a complicated compensation formula for the players, coaches, and managers. Proceeds first go to cover expenses of putting on the event. Expenses include prize money that is distributed to the participating federations. From these funds, a portion is earmarked for the players. The balance is used to pay coaches and staff, and to support the growth of the game in their countries.

5. David Ross wanted to relax a bit after baseball, but he’s been pretty busy. Ross is writing a book about the Cubs’ historic season, has signed up to be an analyst for ESPN, is serving as a special assistant to Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, and is participating in the current season of “Dancing with the Stars.”

6. I’ve had too good of a time in Fort Myers ribbing great Red Sox fan William B. Gould over his role in Red Sox history. The Boston native and former Stanford law professor headed the National Labor Relations Board for President Clinton in 1994 when he nullified the free agency system major league owners had put into place during the players’ strike. Before Gould’s board struck down the system and required them to go back to the system that required six years of service time before free agency, Dan Duquette had signed John Wetteland, Sammy Sosa, and Kevin Appier. How would Red Sox history have been rewritten?

Updates on nine

Chris Tillman went 16-6 in 30 starts last season.
Chris Tillman went 16-6 in 30 starts last season.David Goldman/AP

1. Chris Tillman, RHP, Orioles — Baltimore is hoping to get Tillman back early in the season after he had a cortisone injection in his right shoulder Wednesday. The Orioles can ill afford a prolonged DL stint for their No. 1 starter, but they also want him right. Dan Duquette said he will not fill the void with anyone from outside the organization. Logan Verrett will likely get some starts in Tillman’s place.

2. Derek Norris, C, free agent — Scouts I’ve spoken to generally agree that Norris should stick to the AL, where he can DH a little. “His defense isn’t that good, but you could get away with 30-40 games behind the plate and some at DH. He doesn’t hit like he used to either, but he’s a guy who really cares and works really hard. He’s a good leader on a team and for that reason he’s someone you have to consider if you have a backup role up for grabs.” Norris was cut by the Nationals last week. The Cardinals may have some interest.

3. Anibal Sanchez, RHP, Tigers — For a while this spring it sure looked as if Sanchez was in danger of losing his rotation spot. But in his last outing (four innings, five strikeouts vs. Braves) he showed some life again and now he’s back in the mix. The Tigers owe Sanchez another $21.8 million, between his $16.8 million salary this season and his $5 million buyout clause for 2018.

4. Kyle Kendrick, RHP, Red Sox — Just to clarify, Kendrick, probably the most impressive starting pitcher in Sox camp, has opt-outs on June 15 and Aug. 15. If he and his agent sense a major league opportunity elsewhere, he could take advantage.

5. Jason Heyward, RF, Cubs — Ex- Red Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald is the Cubs’ mental skills coordinator, and he worked with Heyward this offseason on a new swing. Heyward went back to the swing he used when he hit well with the Braves. But Heyward is hitting just .156 this spring, and it appears he will be in a right-field platoon. That eight-year, $184 million deal keeps looking worse.

Rich Hill had a 1.83 ERA in six starts for the Dodgers last season.
Rich Hill had a 1.83 ERA in six starts for the Dodgers last season.Morry Gash/AP

6. Rich Hill, LHP, Dodgers — Hill said the last thing to come in spring training is his “fastball conviction, because that leads to better command for me.” Hill and teammate Clayton Kershaw have struck up quite a friendship, with Kershaw in awe of Hill’s curveball.

7. Brett Lawrie, 2B/3B, free agent — The Marlins are looking for a third baseman after Martin Prado injured his hamstring in the WBC. Lawrie, who had been playing somewhat out of position at second base for the White Sox, is rehabbing a lower-body injury and is probably not ready to sign anywhere. Lawrie’s game went downhill fast in Chicago, but the feeling is if he’s back at third base and his comfort level improves, it might get his hitting back on track.

8. Trevor Rosenthal, RHP, Cardinals — It’s going to be interesting to see how the Cardinals use Rosenthal. Scouts who have seen him recently have been impressed with his velocity (99 miles per hour in his first start vs. the Twins last week) and repertoire. He could wind up in a middle-relief role.

9. Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals — Molina’s five-year, $75 million deal expires after this season and there’s a tricky mutual option for 2018 at $15 million. Molina is still very good at age 34, but would the Cardinals extend him beyond 2018, and would Molina walk away if he doesn’t get the extension?

Extra innings

From the Bill Chuck files — “58-5-9. Consider that the combination to unlock the Hall of Fame for Adrian Beltre, who needs 58 hits for 3,000, five homers for 450, and nine doubles for 600. Reaching those milestones would put him in the elite company of Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, and Carl Yastrzemski, the only other members of the club.” . . . Also, “To fully appreciate Mookie Betts’s 2016 year for Boston, consider this: Only two players in Sox history accrued 300-plus total bases, 30-plus homers, and 25-plus steals in a single season — Jacoby Ellsbury in 2011 (364 TB/32 HR/39 SB) and Betts last season (359 TB/31 HR/26 SB) . . . Happy birthday, David Ross (40).

The biggest losers

Chris Archer of the Rays and James Shields of the Padres and White Sox each lost 19 games in 2016, the most since Darrell May also lost 19 in 2004, and nearly became the first 20-game losers since Mike Maroth lost 21 for the Tigers in 2003. A list of the biggest losers since 1950 — including three 20-game losers who ended up in the Hall of Fame

Compiled by Richard McSweeney

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.