MESA, Ariz. — So, what happens when you help deliver a team’s first championship in more than a century? Do grateful fans really buy your meals and drinks for the rest of your life?
“Sometimes that happens — oh yeah, definitely,” said Kyle Schwarber, the Chicago Cubs’ left fielder, before an exhibition game the other day. “We’re not here always trying to take advantage of people, but it’s a nice gesture and we get it. We always make sure we try to take care of ’em.”
On the field, the Cubs have continued rewarding fans since their magical championship run in 2016. They have returned to the playoffs in each of the two seasons since, part of a four-year stretch in which they have won more games than any other major league team, with 387.
But the standards have changed in Chicago, where the front office wonders how much more it can get from this core. The Cubs’ 95-win regular season felt awfully empty after it crashed and burned in a two-day fiasco at Wrigley Field last October: First the Milwaukee Brewers stole the National League Central crown in a one-game playoff, and then the Colorado Rockies eliminated the Cubs in a 13-inning wild-card game.
“I think everybody, including me, we were trying to do everything ourselves instead of as a team,” second baseman Javier Baez said. “You only make it harder for us and for the team. I think we waited until the season was over to look at it and try to make the adjustments, but obviously, there was no game that day.”
The Cubs were the first team kicked off the postseason stage, which became another showcase for Theo Epstein’s former team, the Boston Red Sox, who won their fourth championship this century. Epstein’s influence on that roster remains — Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts all signed while he was general manager — but his Cubs lack a companion piece for their 2016 trophy.
To get it, Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, brought back nearly the entire roster from 2018, dropping no significant players and adding only at the margins: infielder Daniel Descalso and relievers Brad Brach and Xavier Cedeno. But this group will run out of chances, Epstein said, if it continues to struggle as it did down the stretch.
“In the second half, we completely fell apart offensively,” Epstein said. “We went to the worst quartile you can be in: We were hitting the ball softly, hitting the ball on the ground, striking out, not walking and not getting on base. We went from exactly where you want to be in the first half to exactly where you don’t want to be.
“We still haven’t really put our finger on it.”
It was probably an anomaly, Epstein said, but he added an ominous warning: “If not, then we’re not who we think we are, and we’ll have to make sweeping changes. We’ll find that out this season.”
Epstein underscored that urgency in November by announcing that he would not discuss a contract extension for Manager Joe Maddon — at least not for now.
“I’ve always believed if you do your job, things take care of themselves; I’ve always worked from that premise,” said Maddon, the former Tampa Bay manager who earns $6 million per year on a deal that expires after this season. “I’ve worked on one-year deals in the minor leagues, and my first deal with the Rays had a two-year option, so I’ve been there before.
“I’m really not concerned, and quite frankly, I feel actually pretty good about it. It’s an interesting situation to be in, but I really anticipate being here for a long time. I know from the outside in I’m going to get a lot of these questions, but the best way I can answer it is just like what I’m talking about — owning it now, staying focused in the present tense. That’s the best way to handle any situation.”
There has been more than usual to handle off the field this off-season for the Cubs. Shortstop Addison Russell was given a 40-game suspension for domestic violence late last season, with 28 games still to be served. In February, the news outlet Splinter published a cache of racist emails sent and received by Joe Ricketts, the billionaire patriarch of the family that owns the Cubs, that focused on fear of Muslims and contained conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama.
Epstein gave a lengthy condemnation of Ricketts’ emails at the start of spring training, and Russell opened camp by saying he was “not proud of the person he was” and apologizing to his ex-wife, Melisa.
“I want to own my actions,” Russell said last month. “I want to be accountable for the hurt that I put Melisa through and the pain that she went through. That’s what I want to own.”
Maddon, who combines new-age charisma with a deep background in scouting and coaching, has taken that verb — “own” — and made it the latest in a series of annual slogans he uses to guide the players.
The motto, officially, is “own it now.” You see it everywhere at spring training, from the players’ T-shirts to the Wi-Fi password for the complex. Maddon said he heard the broadcaster Tony Romo use “own it” to describe his approach to calling the Super Bowl.
“I’m sitting around one day and I’m trying to come up with my thoughts, and I wrote down ‘own, now and won,’ and they’re all generated from the same letters,” Maddon said. “The phrase is pretty prominent in general these days, ‘to own it.’”
Part of Maddon’s task this season, he said, is to “coach the coaches even more,” referring to a group that includes a new bench coach (Mark Loretta), new pitching coach (Tommy Hottovy) and two new hitting coaches (Anthony Iapoce and Terrmel Sledge).
Iapoce, who worked with Schwarber, Kris Bryant and others as a Cubs minor league instructor, was most recently a coach for three seasons with the Texas Rangers. In each of those years, the Rangers hit more home runs than the Cubs, who led the N.L. in batting average and hits last season but had their fewest homers since 2014, when they finished in last place.
“There’s a lot of studs in this room that have had plenty of good years before,” said Bryant, a former most valuable player who hit just 13 homers in 102 games as he dealt with a shoulder injury last season. “We know the talent we have here: a lot of All-Stars, a lot of World Series champions, guys who have been around for a long time.”
One of those players, the left-hander Cole Hamels, thrived after arriving in a trade from Texas last July. Hamels had a 2.36 E.R.A. in 12 starts, a better Cubs debut than his former Rangers teammate Yu Darvish, who made just eight starts, with a 4.95 E.R.A., because of elbow and triceps injuries.
“He’s lightning in a bottle, because when he is on, hitters are not putting the ball in play,” Hamels said of Darvish. “He’s got that swing-and-miss stuff, and if you’re able to do that, especially in the National League, you’re getting through seven, eight innings, right on to the closer.”
Darvish, who signed a six-year, $126 million contract before last season, believes he can pitch like that again — or maybe even better. After two sharp innings against the Chicago White Sox on Sunday, Darvish declared, “I’m the best right now in my career.”
“Because I’m throwing 97, my slider was really good and my split was good, too,” Darvish, 32, said. “That’s the best stuff in my life.”
Maybe that was typical spring training hyperbole. But after one of the least-satisfying 95-win seasons in major league history, the Cubs could use a little optimism. They might as well own it now.