CHICAGO -- New Cubs pitcher Travis Wood took two steps into the Chicago Hilton, site of the 27th annual Cubs Convention, and was immediately recognized by some fans. The same happened to new third baseman Ian Stewart.
"I came in here and wasn't sure if I'd be nervous or not but it's really exciting to have such a buzz here for the baseball season to get going," Stewart said.
They're some of the new faces at the Cubs winter fan fest, which opened Friday with the news that Kerry Wood was returning. Wood, who signed a one-year, $3 million contract, was the only one who received more cheers during the opening ceremonies than new president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. One fan held up a sign proclaiming the convention as "Theo Fest."
"I think it will die down," Epstein said about the hoopla surrounding his hiring. "The players are the show. That's why we're all in this profession. As a kid, when I got involved in baseball, it wasn't to see Lou Gorman, the general manager of the Red Sox, it was to watch Jim Rice and Dwight Evans.
"Things have changed a little bit with the information age and people pay more attention to what GMs do and that's great," he said, "but if that ever becomes the show, you don't have a very good product to begin with."
The Cubs will enter the 2012 season as underdogs to win the National League Central after the retooling Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and staff have done. Don't count them out.
"[Epstein] knows what he's doing," new Cubs pitcher Paul Maholm said. "All the moves he's made so far have been to better the club for today and for in the future. I think he and Jed have a plan and they're going to stick to it. They're not wanting to punt this season and say, 'We'll get them next year.' They want to win as many games as they can this year. That's what we as a group are going to do."
The Cubs players hope to do it with Matt Garza in the rotation. The right-hander has been a hot topic in trade rumors this offseason.
"I really don't pay attention," Garza said. "I've got way too many things going on. I work out three to four hours a day, and I've got three kids, and two go to school and I'm busy, busy, busy. Most of my focus is on getting ready for February."
Epstein did want to talk to Garza at some point, face to face.
"He's a rare, rare commodity -- a top of the rotation type starter who has proven it in the [American League] East; he's proven it last year," Epstein said of the right-hander, who was 10-10 with a 3.32 ERA in his first season in Chicago. "He's playoff proven. He's a guy who, when he has the ball, our team thinks we'll win that day, and that's important.
"He's been here longer than I have, too -- just one year in the Cubs clubhouse, and he made a pretty good impression about the way he goes about it," Epstein said.
Garza doesn't feel the Cubs are headed for another fifth-place finish in the NL Central.
"I've played on teams that are just as young and have done some special things," Garza said. "I know what youth can do and I'm excited with where this is going. ... We might shock people."
They'll need to find some power but it may come from Stewart, who impressed Marlon Byrd.
"I was at minicamp in Arizona last week and watching Ian Stewart launching balls the first day to right field," Byrd said. "It's good to see guys coming up who can play and they'll impress people."
Stewart did not hit a home run in 122 at-bats with the Rockies last season. He will take over at third for Aramis Ramirez, who belted 26 for the Cubs.
"There are things I will be changing [with my swing], and not so much my approach but timing and mechanism, but honestly I feel no pressure replacing Aramis," Stewart said. "Garrett Atkins was in Colorado before me and Vinny Castilla and guys like that. I've come in behind some players and never felt I needed to replace them but just be myself and work hard."
Working hard is what new manager Dale Sveum will focus on, and it's one element of the "Cubs way," which Epstein & Co. are trying to stress.
"In baseball, anything can happen," Epstein said. "We might not have the most talent in the division but I know we're going to play hard, I know we have young players with upside and players entering their prime years. When you have that, you can surprise a little bit.
"If we stay healthy and one or two or three or four of the players we have take a big developmental step forward, I think you might look up and be surprised in the middle of the summer, especially with the depth of the starting pitching we have now," Epstein said.
There is no timetable for the Cubs' turnaround but fans may need to be patient. Pitcher Ryan Dempster knows that may be tough for some to understand.
"You hear Theo and Dale and the coaches talk about the style of baseball we want to play and the standard we'll be held to as players and accountability," Dempster said. "It's always talked about and not always enforced and I'm excited for that.
"I think you'll see a group of guys who are really hungry to go out there and play well and led by a group of guys above us who are hungry and want to win," he said.
There was snow on the ground outside the Hilton Chicago, and it was easy to dream about Spring Training in Mesa, Ariz. Opening Day is April 5.
"We're all tied for first right now -- it's our job not to lose it," Dempster said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.