Cubs

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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Theo Epstein and the ‘three masters’ Cubs are trying to serve this offseason

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein and the ‘three masters’ Cubs are trying to serve this offseason

One of the best parts of Cubs Convention is the access fans have to the organization’s biggest figures. Whether in passing in the convention’s hotel lobby or during hour-long panels, fans have opportunities to meet members of the Cubs and ask legitimate questions on the state of the team.

An example occurred Saturday, when a fan had his two minutes of fame during the baseball operations panel.

“The fact that it has been a slower offseason and the fact that it’s pretty obvious we don’t want to increase payroll,” the fan said to team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. “I know we have a high payroll already, so it’s not like the money hasn’t been spent. Has the slow offseason, [has] it just been attributable to the luxury tax, or are there more factors in play, or at least factors that you can talk about?"

For the second straight year, the Cubs arrived at their fan festival having made little moves to upgrade a roster that ended the previous season on a disappointing note. As the fan said, MLB’s luxury tax threshold clearly is an issue. If the Cubs exceed the threshold ($208 million) again, they’ll be taxed 30 percent on their overages and see their 2021 draft pick drop 10 spots, should they eclipse the threshold by $40 million.

For a team that hasn’t had the most success in the draft in recent years, all while not winning in or even making the postseason — despite holding one of MLB’s biggest payrolls (projected just over $209 million in 2020) — those potential penalties are enough to give pause.

“Your question, the way you asked it, is perfect,” Epstein said to the fan. “It outlines the challenges we have. Transparency is very, very important to us. We do the best we can to always tell the truth and always be as open and candid as we can. We think you guys deserve that.”

The Cubs have been knocked in recent years for a lack of transparency. That matters, but there are some areas where they won’t show their hand. Budgets and player payrolls are examples, as revealing too much would hurt them when negotiating deals with agents and opposing clubs.

“But obviously I’m not going to insult you guys,” Epstein added. “Clearly, how we’ve positioned ourselves relative to the collective bargaining tax and the impact of going over multiple years in a row and the effects of that long-term is a factor in the offseason. It’s one of those obstacles that we’ve talked about that we have to find a way to navigate around.”

Fans frustrated by the Cubs sitting idly this offseason and last are quick to point out the luxury tax is merely a de facto salary cap. The financial consequences aren’t overbearing — the Cubs paid $7.6 million in overages in 2019, a small cost for a big market team.

The Cubs aren’t rebuilding and intend to compete in 2020, but their farm system has grown barren from years of win-now moves and struggling to develop impactful homegrown talent. And, on top of all that, many of their core players — Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber — are projected to hit free agency after 2021.

Add that all up, and the Cubs find themselves in a purgatory of sorts as spring training nears.

“I’m going to be honest and self-critical. If we had done our jobs a lot better the last couple years, those same obstacles might be there, but they wouldn’t be as pressing,” Epstein said. “We would have a little bit more flexibility. Any outside factor, like how you position yourself relative to the tax or budgets, is important, but there’s always a way to anticipate that and do your jobs in such a manner that you can get around it.”

Between the desire to compete in 2020, remain competitive long-term and gain financial flexibility, members of the Cubs core have been fixtures of trade rumors all offseason. Dealing Bryant, for example, would give the Cubs payroll relief ($18.6 million salary in 2020) and net the team young, controllable players/prospects. It also would cost the Cubs one of their best players.

At his end-of-season press conference in 2018, Epstein threatened roster changes could occur, though the Cubs largely brought back the same group for 2019. After the club underperformed, winning 84 games, he again hinted changes could be coming.

The Cubs have overhauled their baseball operations up-and-down the organization, but it’s beginning to look like status quo will reign king once again. Bryant’s unresolved grievance case is a factor here, but the club ultimately is struggling to make the right moves to help the team now and moving forward.

“Right now, we’ve been struggling to find the types of transactions that can thread that needle, that can make us better in 2020 and improve our chances of winning the World Series in 2020,” Epstein said, “that at the same time position us so that we don’t run the risk of falling off a cliff after 2021, when a lot of our best players are scheduled to leave and also can get us where we should be relative to the CBT and relative to budgets to ensure a little bit healthier financial picture going forward in the future.

“It’s difficult, it’s not impossible. Probably most of the moves we’re going to make are not going to be able to serve all three of those masters. You might see a move that makes us a lot healthier for the long-term future, which is important to us and we should be doing those types of things, but might create a little more risk for 2020, where you might see a move that…a move that makes us better for 2020, and that’s important.

“We really need to try to improve and take risk away from the roster, but that’s gonna hurt us a little bit down the line after 2021. This is one of those winters where it’s really hard to thread the needle and we’re doing the best we can. I would say to hang with us, and hopefully by the time Opening Day rolls around, we’ve improved the 2020 team, we’ve done some things that maybe don’t improve the ’20 team but ensure a better future and then to our bosses and for our future, we’ve also done a responsible job financially to set us up for long-term fiscal health.”

With Opening Day nine weeks away, there's still time for the Cubs to make a significant move to their roster. Making one that checks all three of Epstein's boxes, however, is a much greater — potentially impossible — task.

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Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich puts Nolan Arenado trade talks to bed

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USA TODAY

Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich puts Nolan Arenado trade talks to bed

Were you hoping the Cubs could pull off a miraculous deal for Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado? If so, at ease.

In an interview with Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post, Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich squashed any chance of Arenado getting dealt this winter.

“With the season coming up and spring training on the horizon, we are going to start focusing on that,” Bridich told Saunders. “We have listened to teams regarding Nolan and really nothing has come of it. We are going to move forward pretty much as we expected — with Nolan in the purple and black and as our third baseman.

“So, we can put this to bed and collectively look forward to the upcoming season and work toward that.”

There you have it.

The chances of the Cubs swinging an Arenado deal were always slim-to-none. The 28-year-old signed a lucrative contract extension with Colorado last February and is still owed $234 million through 2026. The Cubs have money coming off the books each of the next few seasons, but they would have had to clear payroll to acquire Arenado this offseason.

Furthermore, it’s questionable if the Cubs would have put together an enticing enough package for the Rockies. Chicago's farm system has grown barren through the years, and now that it’s slowly improving, it wouldn’t have made sense to trade prospects away.

Monday’s news isn’t completely bad for Cubs fans. The Cardinals were also reportedly interested in Arenado, and Bridich’s statement means St. Louis won’t be acquiring Arenado anytime soon, either.

Update: Things might just be getting started in Colorado...

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