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Cubs: No extension talks with manager Joe Maddon until ‘pivotal’ 2019 plays out

CARLSBAD, Calif. — Here’s all anyone needs to know about how the Cubs’ front office is approaching the 2019 season:

They won’t entertain a contract extension for the most successful manager in team history until he plays out the final year of his contract.

Cubs president Theo Epstein said Monday that after a “great” and “productive” meeting with manager Joe Maddon two weeks ago, the decision was made to table the contract issue until “towards the end of next season.”

“We’re not running away from Joe in the least bit,” Epstein said. “But given that we all have things that we’re working on to get more out of this team, and to be one game better than we were last year, this is the appropriate move. We’re sort of investing in improvement for this year, and that’s where our focus is.”

Epstein and Maddon during pitcher Yu Darvish's simulated game in June. The $126-million pitcher never returned from an elbow injury last season -- one of many injuries and speed bumps in an up-and-down season.

Maddon has consistently shrugged off the contract question over the last few months, and his agent, Alan Nero, said Monday that Maddon is very comfortable with his status and relationship with the front office.

“Joe is not insecure, and there’s no reason to be,” Nero said. “I think there’s an argument that he had his best year last year with the Cubs, considering everything that happened. From a performance point of view, that’s not the issue. I think the issue really comes down to where the Cubs are going after next year. Those are going to be decisions that aren’t about Joe.”

Cubs insiders have said Maddon is considered part of the solution, not the problem, after a stunning and abrupt end to the season in a 13-inning wild-card loss to the Rockies after the Cubs won 95 regular-season games. And with much of the Cubs’ competitive window — and specifically their hopes for 2019 — pinned on a young core that regressed much of last season, Epstein calls the upcoming season pivotal.

Despite a franchise-record four consecutive trips to the postseason, a major-league-best 387 wins the last four years and a long-elusive World Series title, the Cubs are at a competitive crossroads.

Epstein said he sensed a misperception about a comment he made last month about evaluating the team based on production instead of talent going forward.

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“I think we’re really talented,” he said. “And I think that for the group as a whole and for a lot of individual players, it’s now time to turn that talent into production. And in a lot of ways, we’re going to be as good as our core of talent produces.

“It’s time to produce, or else there’s a chance for significant change for the group.”

If that sounds like tacit confirmation that the likes of Bryce Harper aren’t in the Cubs offseason plans, that’s because it probably is. The Cubs have much of their 2019 payroll budget already tied up in obligations to current players, so without creative maneuvers, a big-ticket acquisition this winter is out of the question.

It’s no wonder an extension for Maddon, who’s making $6 million a year in an age of declining manager salaries, would be tabled until the Cubs’ direction beyond 2019 is more clear. Nero suggested Maddon, 64, might want to seek alternatives, too, depending on that direction.

“He’s a brilliant guy. He’s got lots of options,” Nero said. “Hopefully it works out that the team is going to stay together, and they’re going to win, and it’s an obvious thing that Joe stays. But this has never been a concern of Joe’s. It’s not a problem.”

But it’s a sign of where this team finds itself barely two years after winning the most coveted championship in American sports.

“Nothing is granted or bestowed in baseball,” Epstein said. “The time you have with a special group can go pretty fast, and you want to make the most of every opportunity that you have to win.

“Teams don’t stay together forever. It’s certainly time. It’s certainly a pivotal season for us as an organization for this group to go out there and accomplish some special things.”