Once more unto the breach: 5 issues for Cubs to address in 2019 season

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Yu Darvish -- on a rehab assignment with the Cubs' class A affiliate -- warms up against the Great Lakes Loons at a South Bend Cubs baseball game on Aug. 19 in South Bend, Ind. Darvish made only 8 starts last season after signing a six-year contract worth $126 million.

    Yu Darvish -- on a rehab assignment with the Cubs' class A affiliate -- warms up against the Great Lakes Loons at a South Bend Cubs baseball game on Aug. 19 in South Bend, Ind. Darvish made only 8 starts last season after signing a six-year contract worth $126 million. South Bend Tribune via AP

 
 
Updated 2/9/2019 5:30 PM

The winter of many Cubs fans' discontent is about to end.

Whether hope will spring eternal once spring training begins this week remains to be seen, but no doubt Cubs players will be glad to be on the field after the team's longest off-season since 2014-15.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Back then, the Cubs were coming off a record of 73-89, but first baseman Anthony Rizzo said at the end of 2014 that the team's goal was to win the National League Central in 2015. A few weeks later, they had a new manager in Joe Maddon, who was promising to change the culture of the Cubs and get them to the postseason.

Maddon did that four seasons in a row, but the Cubs have reached the point where 95 wins in the regular season without playoff success is considered a failure.

Despite an hourlong venting session to the media one day after the Cubs lost the wild-card game, team President Theo Epstein made no headline-grabbing changes to the team other than changing the coaching staff again.

Epstein and Maddon will meet the media Tuesday in Mesa, Arizona, and Cubs pitchers and catchers will hold their first formal workouts of spring training the next day. Position players, many of whom are in Mesa already, will have their first official workout Feb. 18.

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With that desert backdrop, here are five issues facing the Cubs as they get ready for the 2019 season:

Maddon's status:

Maddon has a winning percentage of .597 with the Cubs, but Epstein did not offer him a contract extension and said last fall that he would not consider that until later this year.

So you can look at Maddon as lame duck, or you can look at it his way and say he's a potential free agent.

Maddon said he will do more "coaching" and be more hands on this spring. Since he came up as a coach and instructor, he should feel at home doing that.

One thing to watch will be the tone, feel and intensity in Cubs camp.

Darvish's health:

Remember pitcher Yu Darvish? He was the Cubs' big free-agent splash on the eve of spring training last year, getting a six-year contract worth $126 million.

Darvish made only 8 starts last season, as right-triceps tendinitis ended his season after May 20. In September, he underwent an arthroscopic debridement of his right elbow.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Cubs and Darvish report good progress in the off-season. What the Cubs need are 32 starts from Darvish. That will go a long way toward ensuring a good season for the team.

The rest of the rotation looks solid, with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels, although there is concern about the ages of Lester and Hamels. That's one reason Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections have the Cubs finishing with a record of 82-80.

The bullpen:

It's time for our annual cautionary note: The bullpen a team starts the season with is never the one it finishes with.

The Cubs likely will begin the season without closer Brandon Morrow, who did not pitch after the all-star break because of right-biceps inflammation. Like Darvish, Morrow underwent surgery, in November, to clean up his right elbow.

Pedro Strop, who saved 13 games, did not pitch in the regular season after Sept. 13, when he injured his hamstring running the bases. He could open this season as the interim closer.

The Cubs added relieves Brad Brach and Tony Barnette this off-season. They'll join workhorse Steve Cishek (career-high games 80 last year), Carl Edwards Jr. as the bigger names of a bullpen that, for all the consternation, that had the best ERA in the NL last year.

Taking the next step:

During his post mortem in October, Epstein said it was time to talk about "production" rather than "potential" when it comes to the team's young players.

Javier Baez broke through big time last year and finished second in MVP balloting and was the front-runner until the final week of the season.

The Cubs will be expecting more from former first-round draft picks Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ.

Bryant's health:

Third baseman Kris Bryant proclaimed himself fit and ready to go during last month's Cubs convention.

Bryant, the 2016 MVP, played through a shoulder ailment for much of last season, when his line was .272/.374/.460 with 13 homers and 52 RBI, both career lows. He hit 39 homers and drove in 102 during his MVP season. Early "live" batting practice in spring training and the first few games of the Cactus League season will provide good indicators of Bryant's progress.

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