In the middle of a Chicago winter, Joe Maddon delivered a cold reality.
It wasn’t breaking news as much as a startling reminder of the odd approach the Cubs have taken to this offseason. Until he comes up with something catchier, Maddon also inadvertently came up with the best slogan so far for 2019. “Not Going to Happen.” Probably not something the Cubs want to put on a T-shirt.
Harper? Not going to happen. Manny Machado? Nope. A late-inning reliever as an alternative to injured closer Brandon Morrow? Not yet. A blockbuster trade that attempts to fix an offense Cubs President Theo Epstein declared broken at the end of last season? Not. Going. To. Happen.
So what can the Cubs believe in a month before spring training?
As another Cubs Convention convenes Friday, the consistent theme involves embracing the status quo. Team leaders say they believe in the players who won 95 games last season, even if everyone stopped hitting when it mattered most.
The overall organizational message, however, seems mixed. In explaining why the Cubs opted against giving Maddon a contract extension, Epstein indicated the need to see more urgency early in the season. But the front office has acted contrary to that idea, with the biggest move to date the signing of utility man Daniel Descalso for a modest two-year, $5 million deal.
The World Series window remains wide open at Clark and Addison. The starting rotation of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish — if healthy — creates the expectation they can contend for a National League pennant.
But the roster would look more formidable if it wasn’t so familiar. The Cubs are counting on guys such Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras to enjoy resurgent seasons. They are relying on a healthy Kris Bryant to return to MVP form and stars Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo to again play like stars. They are investing more hope in shortstop Addison Russell than is wise. They insist on looking within for answers when seeking help from the outside offers alternatives so far ignored.
Epstein deserves the benefit of the doubt as much as any sports executive in town ever has, but the Cubs are operating like a team determined not to let bad investments burn them again. They have left the impression that overspending on free-agent disappointments Darvish and Tyler Chatwood last year has prevented them from pursuing big-ticket players such as Harper and Machado now.
“Frankly, we have one of the largest budgets in baseball. We’ve put that to work,’’ Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts said Thursday on WSCR-AM 670. “We have a team we like. We have a team we think is going to go a long way. … Judge us by what happens in the season, not in December.’’
Nobody can call Ricketts or the Cubs cheap, not with baseball’s second-highest payroll at $205 million, according to spotrac.com. Nor can anybody deny how unusual it is to watch the Cubs stand idly by while the Cardinals and Brewers improve themselves enough to make winning the NL Central even more challenging.
The Cubs can defend not wanting to invest between $200 million and $300 million on Machado or Harper — even with Harper’s perceived interest in playing at Wrigley Field. But it’s fair to wonder why they have stayed away from, say, late-inning relievers such as Craig Kimbrel and Adam Ottavino (whom the Yankees grabbed Thursday) or veteran hitters like Michael Brantley and Josh Donaldson. Why does this have to be an all-or-nothing offseason for the Cubs? It’s almost as if Epstein is seeing how much faith the fan base truly has in him.
At various times, Epstein has dismissed the idea that baseball’s competitive balance tax — assessed to teams that surpass the $206 million threshold — has dictated the Cubs’ course of action. Instead, Epstein cites budget concerns, which seems like semantics to outsiders. We see a team that says it can’t afford to upgrade its roster and wonder if it can afford not to in a division in which everyone but the Cubs got better.
Soon the Cubs officially will announce plans to launch their own television network. They chose to go that route for one reason: the additional revenue created. The $1 billion impact the Ricketts family has made on Wrigleyville needs nothing more than a drive by Hotel Zachary or Gallagher Way to confirm. The perception depicts a Cubs organization teeming with money. The reality is the Cubs have decided not to spend wildly to alter their roster after a 95-win season. Their inaction has supported their words, which are easier to interpret than understand.
Can the Cubs do more in 2019 by doing less this winter? They think so. But barring a big course change before spring training, my initial reaction suggests something else.
Not going to happen.
David Haugh is a special contributor to the Chicago Tribune and co-host of the “Mully and Haugh Show” weekdays from 5-9 a.m. on WSCR-AM-670.