MESA, Ariz. -- Eventually, Willson Contreras got bored. The offseason had gone on long enough. The Chicago Cubs catcher was used to playing baseball deep into the fall, but a team-wide offensive flameout last year led to a long winter.
So on Monday morning, a day before catchers and pitchers reported, Contreras was already taking his swings in the cage, attempting to put a down 2018 season for him and the team behind him.
"I think we needed that (losing early)," Contreras said after he was finished hitting. "We tried to do our best but it didn't work out...This was my first offseason having October off. It was really weird for me. I was really uncomfortable at first."
A winter of discontent for the Chicago Cubs has finally given way to a spring of cautious optimism as camp opens for the 2016 World Series champions. That historic title -- coming 108 years after their last one -- feels like a decade ago as the team and organization have taken a bit of a hit in the interim.
Of course, that's partly because expectations from a rabid fan base -- thinking about a Cubs dynasty -- have come up short since November 2016. It hasn't helped their narrative that the team did little to improve its roster this offseason, is bringing back a player suspended for domestic abuse allegations, and recently had to distance itself from racist and bigoted email exchanges by the father of the team owner. Discontent might be an understatement.
"This year is really a reckoning in a lot of ways," Team president Theo Epstein said during the winter. "We do have a lot to prove."
Epstein was referring to his team on the field, which, by the way, won 95 games last season before losing the NL Central tiebreaker and the wild-card game. But that statement could apply to the off-the-field concerns as well. Can they navigate the possible return of shortstop Addison Russell when his 40-game suspension is over in May? He would become the first prominent player to return to his old team after serving a significant suspension for violating baseball's domestic abuse policies. Others in similar situations have moved on, but the Cubs insist they want to be part of the solution, which includes monitoring Russell's counseling and therapy. The team is also likely to make amends, where they can, after the revelation of racist emails sent and replied to by Joe Ricketts, patriarch of the Ricketts family who own the Cubs.
It's under that backdrop the team begins spring training with a lame-duck manager. The Cubs hate what the word means as they continue to profess faith in Joe Maddon. But the reality of the situation is simply this: There's a chance Maddon could take the Cubs to the postseason in all five of his five years as manager and still be out of a job next winter. As is, the perception is that if he goes 4 for 5, he'll be out of a job. It's a sign of the times when perennial playoff managers are losing gigs in favor of younger and cheaper options. That's not to say Maddon is coming off his best year in the dugout. Far from it.
The off-the-field issues have divided some Cubs fans, but what unites many of them is a belief the team pulled a fast one on them by doing very little to improve the roster for 2019. This was supposed to be the year Las Vegas natives and friends Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant joined forces. Or at least that's what many thought would happen, though the Cubs never once forecast such a union. After failing miserably on offense late last season, the team changed just it's 25th man on the roster, adding Daniel Descalso while subtracting Tommy La Stella. After ceding the division to the Milwaukee Brewers, doubt has begun to creep into the Cubs narrative. Was the end of 2018 the beginning of something bad for the Cubs or just a blip? After all, it's hard to improve or be upset with a 95-win year. The Cubs may simply embrace the underdog role just as they did being the favorite back in 2016.
There's nothing wrong with having some doubt," general manager Jed Hoyer said recently. "In '16, we were clearly the best team in the division, and we embraced that target. That's not the case right now."
If Maddon needs some bulletin-board material, perhaps he can post PECOTA's predictions. Annually, the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm spits out its win/loss predictions for every team. It has the Cubs going 82-80 this year. 82 wins? That's blasphemy for the team with the most wins in baseball over the past four regular seasons, averaging just under 97 wins per year. Even Las Vegas, always a friendly place for Cubs bettors, doesn't think the team will win 90 games.
So what's the solution? Urgency. Even in winning 95 last year, there wasn't enough.
"Complacency is kind of a loaded word, but do I think we played with the same urgency we played with in 2016?" Hoyer wondered. "No."
Epstein added, early in the winter: "(It) sounds funny coming off 95 wins. I feel like we underperformed. I think you're going to see a really highly motivated group of players out there. Whether we have a big offseason or more nuanced offseason, you should judge us on how we play next year."
We now know it's been a more nuanced winter for the Cubs, meaning all the focus is on the team that came up short last year -- which is mostly the same team that won the World Series. PECOTA thinks their starting staff is too old, fans think the offense is still broken and no one is quite sure how the bullpen will fare with closer Brandon Morrow already down to start the spring. But even with question marks, few will count the Cubs out. There's still a lot of talent. Perhaps 82 wins won't be a shock but neither would be 97.
"We feel like as though we have all the ingredients in the bowl," Maddon said. "I'm all about development ... I'm with the guys, Theo and Jed, regarding definitely trying to extrapolate more out of the group we already have because there's a lot more left."
Maddon spent the offseason learning what makes millennials tick while the front office has made behind-the-scenes changes to how they want their players to attack each day.
Meanwhile, the other NL Central teams have added to their rosters, leading to those predictive models suggesting no one will win 90 games in the division.
"People are going to pick a lot of different teams to win our division," Hoyer said. "We've had good years by normal standards."
"Normal" left the building the moment the Cubs won it all in 2016. Fans want nothing less than another title -- or at least a better shot at one than the team gave last season. There were extenuating circumstances -- injuries and a rough schedule were real. So there's hope mixed in with the doubt. It's the beauty of baseball and the reality of the Chicago Cubs as 2019 begins. A year of reckoning indeed, especially for its manager.
"I came up on one-year deals, but you always felt if you worked well and did your job that stuff will take care of itself," Maddon stated. "I still believe in those principles."