CHICAGO -- Talk to a Chicago Cubs fan these days and you're likely to find mixed emotions. That's been the theme of the offseason right up to, and through, this past weekend's annual winter fan convention.
Mixed emotions. Conflicting thoughts. Excitement and angst.
Those are all part of the Cubs experience right now as the calendar inches toward spring training. In the past, the Cubs signed big-ticket free agents like Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Yu Darvish. But this winter has been anything but big. The front office forecast early that the budget wouldn't allow for additions like those splashes. Utility man Daniel Descalso is the lone new player on the team that's won the most regular-season games the past four seasons but has come up short in the postseason the past two years.
"We didn't have the flexibility this year to go ahead and sign a huge free agent and I'm not sure we would have anyway," owner Tom Ricketts said on ESPN WMVP-AM 1000 last week in a rare interview. "We like the team we have. We have strong young guys at most positions."
So free agent Bryce Harper would not have been on the Cubs' radar, even with the budget for him? Not many fans believe that from an owner who has been less transparent in recent days. Ricketts canceled his annual fan forum over the weekend for the first time since buying the team in 2009. Yet team president Theo Epstein held a session with fans himself. He wanted to face the music after a disastrous end to 2018, and he did.
So there was transparency from one executive, whereas the owner claimed "low ratings" from previous years were to blame for canceling his own panel discussion. Ricketts did explain himself regarding the employment of shortstop Addison Russell, who is suspended for the first 28 games of 2019 after violating the league's policies on domestic violence. That's yet another topic ripe with mixed emotions, especially when you consider the Cubs won't invite former star Sammy Sosa back into the fold until he comes clean about use of performance-enhancing drugs. For some fans, that opened the door to compare and contrast Russell's and Sosa's situations. Right or wrong, it doesn't sit well that one has a job with the team and the other can't wave to the fans at a fan convention.
Without Ricketts answering questions, without charismatic team leader Anthony Rizzo in attendance (he was on his honeymoon) and without a major new addition to the team, the headlines from the convention fell to Kris Bryant. He was openly critical of how free agency has played out again this winter, then hours later called the city of St. Louis "boring" -- starting an offseason feud with the rival Cardinals. Many fans loved it, but since Bryant and his team must now back up the rhetoric, even that moment brought some mixed emotions.
Eventually, the weekend discussion returned to the field, where the Cubs failed on offense down the stretch last season and then vowed to fix what ailed them. That's when the Harper discussion picked up, only to be quashed early in the offseason.
"The money got eaten up in a lot of ways by the guys that were coming through the [arbitration] system, and it's not like we had a big contract roll off," Ricketts said.
So the team turned inward, with manager Joe Maddon saying over the past few days there was more to "extrapolate" from his current group, while the front office has asked players to maximize their day-to-day prep better. After all, the Cubs won 95 games last season. Tweaking to maximize potential only makes common sense.
"You turn over every stone," Zobrist said. "You're thinking about 'why.' It's not just that it did happen. You have to figure out why and then you have to make an adjustment and do something different."
The Cubs also want better leadership in the clubhouse. This was supposed to be a tight group -- the same that won the World Series in 2016. But perhaps it's been too tight. Calling each other out, when needed, hasn't been a part of the room since David Ross and Jon Jay moved on. Perhaps a full season with pitcher Cole Hamels will provide some extra leadership.
"That's where I need to be," Hamels said this past weekend. "That's the role directed towards you if you play this game long enough. Being more vocal, instead of just letting it play out on the field."
Ultimately, if the Cubs start to hit again, the rest should take care of itself. The starting staff is deeper -- Darvish is healthy and seems more confident -- and Epstein has found effective arms for his bullpen over the years, even if they aren't always the biggest names. The key might simply be the Cubs' attitude. They were once on top of the world, but the end of last season knocked them down. How they get up off the mat is how they'll be judged moving forward. Mixed emotions and all.
"We're a confident group," Albert Almora Jr. said. "We just have to finish what we start. We want to send a message early on."