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Same cast of Cubs takes it from the top again — this time with urgency

MESA, Ariz. — Just as Cubs manager Joe Maddon and the front-office big shots began to push their chairs and microphones back from the table to depart in what already had been a 45-minute news conference, one grouchy beat writer caused groans across a packed interview room Tuesday by insisting on one more question.

“I’d hate to see you at a dinner party,” team president Theo Epstein. “And I won’t.”

Be that as it may, the team’s annual media event to open spring training was rightfully spent in large part on addressing the impact of ownership patriarch Joe Ricketts’ racist and Islamaphobic emails and the status of shortstop Addison Russell regarding his domestic-violence suspension.

And while another chunk of the unusually sober-minded spring kickoff involved the potential for labor conflict after another ugly offseason for premier free agents, the elephant not in the room had gone ignored.

Team president Theo Epstein (with manager Joe Maddon) addresses media Tuesday on the first day of Cubs spring training.

Bryce Harper anyone?

With the big names still out there as camps open across Florida and Arizona, could a short-term, high-value deal be considered if that becomes a desirable Plan B for one of those big free agents who were looking for 10-year deals?

“You mean for us?” Epstein said.

He might as well have stopped there instead of offering a reminder of the budget issues that kept the Cubs from adding much of anything in the offseason beyond a backup infielder (Daniel Descalso) and some relief help (Brad Brach).

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“You can sort of extrapolate the approach we’ve taken this winter as probably going forward what’s most realistic for us,” Epstein said.

At which point, an apparently confused reporter suggested he didn’t answer the question.

“I think I did answer it,” Epstein said.

See: “You mean us?”

It is against this backdrop that the 2019 Cubs, who look remarkably like the 2018 team, begin the work of returning to the deep part of October without significant reinforcements for the first time since their run began — with only themselves to make it happen, or to blame if they don’t.

Epstein said they’re staying in touch with some free-agent relievers, hoping to “squeeze” one more into the budget.

But it’s basically the same group that experienced a World Series hangover in 2017 and stopped scoring runs down the stretch last year that faces a prove-it season of “reckoning.” Epstein has put off extension talks with Maddon, who is in the final year of his contract, until the end of the season and promised a more results-oriented evaluation of the Cubs’ core.

As spring training starts, the Cubs are talking a lot about urgency and about a rotation that on paper looks like a significant strength if healthy. They’re talking a lot about taking the angry, bitter emotions from last season’s abrupt ending in the wild-card game and channeling it into renewed purpose this year.

“Had we not done anything this winter, we were going to return a highly motivated group of players,” Epstein said, echoing Maddon’s sentiments.

The T-shirts for those sentiments were already on display as players worked out ahead of Wednesday’s first official camp drills. The shirts spelled out “CUB” across the chest, with three vertical words starting with each of those letters: “Courage,” “Urgency” and “Belief.”

And Maddon has more T-shirts in the works with this year’s slogan: “Own it now.”

“It’s still in the finishing stages,” Maddon said. “If [you] think about owning it now, you can talk about ownership as part of the team, you can think about owning the exact moment that you’re in, whether it’s the at-bat, the pitch — just owning it now. A lot of it has to do with the present tense.

“I think our guys do understand that concept. A big part of our success this year is going to be the fact that we own each moment. And if you took the word ‘now’ and turn it around, it becomes ‘won.’ If we get in the habit of owning the moment, we have a pretty good chance of winning it by the end of the year.”

Or having a lot more to own by then.