ARLINGTON, Texas — For the most part, this has been an era of positive vibes around the Chicago Cubs like no other time in franchise history.
Even when Theo Epstein took the reigns in late 2011, pronouncing that the Cubs had a few years of rebuilding, there was a feeling of progress and process with the club. Joe Maddon’s arrival, along with the arrival of younger players acquired in the reshaping of the franchise, has brought unprecedented success to a team often known more for their losing.
But something changed in September of 2018, when a lost division lead, quick playoff exit and a few off-field controversies soured the feeling.
Because of this, Epstein laid down the philosophy of the 2019 season directly and bluntly in December when meeting with the media.
“This is really a year of reckoning,” said Epstein on Dec. 6 — and he’s right.
The 2019 season can either be a major rebound year for the franchise, or it could signal the end of an era. It starts at 3 p.m. Thursday pm WGN-TB at Globe Life Park as the Cubs face the Rangers to start six months of what promises to be some drama-filled baseball.
It’s the last year of Maddon’s contract, which was not extended after the 2018 season despite four-straight playoff appearances. There was an edict from Epstein for the manager to be more hands-on with the team in 2019, with the hope that it would add more urgency to the group.
That wasn’t there when hitting woes led to Cubs’ late-season slump, which led to a Game 163 loss to the Brewers that cost the team a division title. A painful extra-inning loss to the Rockies in the Wild Card game signaled a rough offseason to come.
There was Addison Russell’s 40-game suspension for a violation of the MLB’s domestic violence policy, and the team’s controversial decision to bring him back on a non-guaranteed deal. There were controversial emails released from Joe Ricketts, the father of Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, that led to backlash from around Chicago and nationally.
Lack of big spending on free agents or even a pursuit of players like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado had fans wondering about the team’s commitment to keeping the window open. Meanwhile, the NL Central teams bolstered their rosters in hopes of making their run at the title.
Yet a lot of the core that was with the Cubs in 2016 when the won the World Series remains. Kris Bryant is healthy after an injury-riddled 2018, Javier Baez is back after a MVP finalist season, and Anthony Rizzo returns after being one of the few Cubs that could hit late in the season.
Yu Darvish has been healthy all spring and steadily improved through his starts, and could be a great addition to a veteran rotation. He along with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana make up a potentially elite starting group if each can live up to expectations.
The bullpen is having injury issues, and there are still questions about the group’s ability as a whole to improve from 2018. Still, there is optimism that the lessons of one “down” year can be a catalyst for success in the next.
“We’re battle-tested, we’re strong, we’ve had an extra month to reset, which in a way, is good for everyone,” said Rizzo. “We’ll see how it pays off.”
It had better. The “year of reckoning” is upon them.