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19 for '19: Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?

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AP

19 for '19: Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?

By the time the Cubs had their first full-squad workout in spring training, everybody seemed rather anxious to get an opportunity to "stick to sports." 

Between the Addison Russell domestic abuse situation, Joe Ricketts' racist emails, the Cubs-vs.-Tunney political war, the new TV deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group and the Rickettses' continued involvement with President Trump and right-wing politics, there's been a lot of energy expelled discussing non-baseball matters around the Cubs this winter. 

Not every one of those aforementioned conflicts is a hot-button issue with each fan and there are always bound to be off-field controversies with a business as high profile as the Cubs, but it has certainly been an exhausting winter. 

Add in all the drama over the broken state of MLB free agency, the Cubs' budgetary concerns and even the minor war of words between Kris Bryant/Chicago and Yadier Molina/St. Louis and you can see why players and coaches were so eager to talk about batting stances and bunt rotations and velocity.

It's certainly not the way any team would choose to begin their new season, let alone a squad that has lofty goals for the year ahead and plenty to prove on the field.

Even Joe Maddon admitted all the heavy topics were draining.

"Of course. We're here to play baseball," he said in late February. "I know we're part of the social fabric of this country and people watch us all the time and we're very popular as baseball players. But I would prefer to getting back to just talking about baseball. That's what we're here for — we're here to entertain. We're part of the entertainment industry, I think. 

"I know people like to take that respite away from the rest of the world and just get absorbed into those 3 or 3.5 hours [during the game]. It's our job to make sure we're playing well enough to make that an enjoyable 3-3.5 hours and that's what we're here for.

"I understand people doing their jobs, I understand the interest and the reason behind asking very difficult questions. But after all, we need to get back to becoming the baseball team that we are. The fact is, we entertain on a baseball field and that's what we're looking forward to do."

The thing is, many of these issues won't go away and many fans don't have the option of "sticking to sports," especially with issues like abuse, racism and Islamophobia that may hit close to home.

The Russell situation has quieted down now, but it will certainly pick up steam again around the end of April when his suspension is due to end. Who knows how many more Ricketts email leaks Splinter has planned or when they will drop. Discussions over the TV deal and carriage issues will grow louder as time moves on.

There's no guarantee issues like politics, TV rights and emails will penetrate the bubble of the Cubs' locker room, but players will at least be asked about Russell over and over again this year as they try to march toward another World Series.

The Cubs will never admit the Russell situation was a distraction last year in the midst of a playoff race. Maybe it had zero impact on the on-field product, but the simple fact of the matter is, Cubs players, coaches and front office execs were asked about it often and had to discuss the situation while Russell remained silent behind the MLB investigation. 

Instead of talking or thinking about baseball, they were talking or thinking about a heavy topic and trying hard to avoid adding more fuel to the fire with an insensitive comment.

So no matter how badly they may want to stick to baseball, the Cubs won't have that luxury in 2019.

But this is also a veteran-laden locker room and coaching staff, and they're certainly no strangers to dealing with off-field distractions.

Time well tell if it will have any impact on the Cubs' win-loss column or what controversy may be lurking around the next corner, but they have plenty to focus their attention on between the white lines and they're not interested in any excuses. 

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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Cubs lead Bears, Bulls on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list

Cubs lead Bears, Bulls on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list

The Chicago Cubs tied the Washington Redskins for 14th on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list with a $3.1 billion valuation. The Cubs' valuation grew by 7% year over year.

The Cubs are the fourth-most valuable franchise in MLB behind the Yankees ($4.1B), the Dodgers ($3.3B) and the Red Sox ($3.2B). Only seven MLB teams made the Top 50.

Two other Chicago teams, the Bears and the Bulls, are tied for 19th on the list with a value of $2.9 billion. The Bears' value grew just 2% while the Bulls' valuation grew by 12% year over year.

The rise of the pro sports teams valued over $2 billion has been pretty meteoric over the past decade. In 2012, only Manchester United was valued over $2 billion and in 2019 that number has risen to 52.

In 2012, only the Knicks and Lakers made the Top 50 list but in 2019 the Bulls are one of nine teams to earn a spot. The Bulls were the fourth-most valuable NBA franchise in 2019 behind the Knicks ($4B), Lakers ($3.7B) and Warriors ($3.5B).

Forbes credits the NBA's international prospects and worldwide revenue growth for the league's rise in the list.

No NHL teams made the list, the New York Rangers were the most-valued hockey team at $1.55 billion, 72nd highest.

Road struggles continue for Cubs in late-game implosion against Giants

Road struggles continue for Cubs in late-game implosion against Giants

It’s no secret that the Cubs have had their fair share of struggles on the road this season. Entering Monday’s game the Giants – the first of a nine-game road trip -- the Cubs held an 18-27 road record, 21st in all of baseball.

Things took a turn for the worse in that department on Monday night.

Clinging to a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning, the Cubs called upon reliever Pedro Strop to shut down the Giants 3-4-5 hitters. Strop, who entered action with a 4.62 ERA in 29 appearances (5.40 in July), surrendered three runs on four hits – including three doubles. The end result was the Giants taking a 5-4 lead, ultimately the game’s final score.

While Strop’s outing will get the most face time due to it occurring in a high-leverage spot, the truth of the matter is that the Cubs struggled for much of Monday’s game. After taking an early 3-0 lead, they couldn’t pull away from the Giants, watching San Francisco slowly close the gap and cut the deficit to 3-2 in the fifth inning.

The Giants actually came close to tying the game at 3-3 in the seventh inning, though Steve Cishek was able to work out of a first and second, one out jam to keep the Cubs ahead. Plus, before consecutive two out singles in the eighth inning – one being an RBI from Anthony Rizzo to give the Cubs an insurance run, the Cubs offense went through a 1-for-15 drought that began with two outs in the third inning.

At the same time, Strop struggling again is quite concerning. The 34-year-old has been the team's most reliable reliever for the past five seasons, posting sub-3.00 ERAs in each campaign from 2014-18. However, he's in the midst of a forgettable month, allowing seven runs on 11 hits in 7 2/3 innings. Strop also surrendered a game-tying home run in the eighth inning Friday against the Padres, though the Cubs were able to bounce back and win. 

Between their road woes and Strop's rough July, Monday's game did nothing to alleviate concerns over two unsettling Cubs trends. If there's one positive to take away from the game, it's that the Cubs were six outs away from picking up their third road win in seven tries this month.

Moral victories count for little when a team is in a heated pennant race, though, especially since the Cardinals took down the Pirates Monday to cut the Cubs' lead in the NL Central to 1.5 games. The Cubs have to find a way to get better on the road, and they have to find a way to get Strop back on track. Fortunately for the Cubs, there's still time to do both, as Strop pointed out postgame.

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