By: Jay Cohen, AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Cubs took a long, hard look at themselves over the winter.
There was nowhere else to go.
Chicago begins spring training with largely the same group of players who blew a five-game lead in the NL Central last September and lost to Colorado in 13 innings in the wild card game. On consecutive October days at Wrigley Field, the Cubs watched as Milwaukee celebrated its win in the tiebreaker for the division title and then the Rockies put a bow on the disappointing finish for the 2016 World Series champions.
“When something’s taken from you there — I think we deserved to keep going, we had a good year — that state of hungriness and that work ethic even lights up a bigger fire in the offseason,” center fielder Albert Almora Jr. said. “So it’s a good time, it’s a good time to be us and we’re excited to go.”
The Cubs made three consecutive appearances in the NLCS before they faltered last year. But they were noticeably quiet the past couple months, staying away from the marquee free agents because of budget constraints.
Chicago’s biggest move might have been the one it didn’t make. Manager Joe Maddon did not receive a contract extension, sending him into the final year of his current deal with an uncertain future.
What comes next most likely will be up to the core of baseball’s winningest team since 2015.
“This is as hard as I’ve ever worked in an offseason,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “The results in terms of adding players aren’t there, but we think we’ve done a lot of good behind the scenes to learn some lessons from last year and try to put our best foot forward.”
The Cubs’ pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Arizona, on Wednesday, and the first full-squad workout is Feb. 18.
NEW LOOK- Brad Brach and Tony Barnette join a Cubs bullpen that finished with a 3.35 ERA last year, second in the majors behind Houston. Brach posted a 1.52 ERA in 27 appearances after he was traded from Baltimore to Atlanta on July 30. Barnette went 2-0 with a 2.39 ERA in 22 games for Texas.
Justin Wilson and Jesse Chavez left in free agency, and Brandon Morrow is expected to begin the year on the disabled list while he works his way back from arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow. Pedro Strop, who went 6-1 with a 2.26 ERA and 13 saves last season, likely will fill in at closer while Morrow is out.
ROOKIES TO WATCH- Chicago’s experienced roster will make it difficult for any rookie to make much of an impact this year, but keep an eye on right-hander Adbert Alzolay. The 23-year-old Alzolay missed much of last season with a strained muscle. He could make his major league debut out of the bullpen if the Cubs need some relief help this summer.
THEY’RE SET- Anthony Rizzo remains a steady presence, providing consistent production at first base and valuable leadership in the clubhouse. The slugger got off to a slow start last year but recovered in time to finish with a .283 batting average, 25 homers and 101 RBIs. He has driven in at least 101 runs in each of the past four seasons.
THEY’RE NOT- The outfield is a mixed bag, and how it shakes out could have a huge impact on Chicago’s season. Ian Happ hit just .233 with 167 strikeouts in 142 games last year, taking a step back after his promising rookie campaign. A lighter, more fit Kyle Schwarber was much improved defensively, and just OK at the plate. Albert Almora Jr. batted .227 with a .245 on-base percentage in his final 34 games last season. Jason Heyward also struggled down the stretch last year. The Cubs need a couple of their outfielders to find another level in 2019.
ON DECK- The Cubs begin the season at Texas on March 28. Following a nine-game road trip, they host Pittsburgh in their home opener on April 8.