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Spring showers: More clouds, questions than sun, baseball as Cubs camp opens

When Cubs president Theo Epstein said in November that he expected 2019 to be a year of ‘‘reckoning’’ for the organization, he couldn’t have known how profound that assertion would look by the time the team got to Arizona for spring training.

Epstein talked then about the organizational introspection and evaluation taking place as the Cubs prepared to look for on-field improvement from within, at least in large part because of a payroll already strained near its limit.

But as Cubs pitchers and catchers report Tuesday to Mesa for the start of camp, the questions and issues looming over the team are a lot more significant off the field, with the top storylines involving anything but the guys who figure to be on the Opening Day roster.

So much for feel-good buzz and World Series vibes.

A healthy Yu Darvish could be the key to the Cubs' 2019 fortunes -- and makes him a top player to watch as spring training opens Tuesday in Mesa., Ariz. (John Antonoff photo)

A do-little winter that featured more talking to the media animals than with significant free agents drew most of its headlines from the Cubs’ controversial decision to retain ties with troubled shortstop Addison Russell as he faces the final 28 days of a major-league suspension for domestic violence.

But if anyone thought the blue skies, spring hope and summerlike temperatures of Mesa might break through the Russell cloud, along came racist and Islamophobic emails written, shared and commented on by ownership
patriarch Joe Ricketts that were leaked Monday by the website SplinterNews.com.

The backlash was swift and intense, prompting an apology from Joe Ricketts, a statement from his son and Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts distancing the team from its financial wellspring and rebukes from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Major League Baseball, columnists and countless fans on social-media platforms and airwaves.

Tom Ricketts held a meeting with CAIR on Friday, but the topic is certain to be one of the first lines of questioning during his annual spring media session Feb. 18.

It’s almost enough to make an owner long for the days of 101-loss seasons and massive franchise debt.

The other questions surrounding the Cubs as camp opens are more about baseball:

How will they handle Russell’s daily presence around teammates and media?

The Cubs insist Russell has a rigorous path to navigate before they make a final decision about whether he’ll be with the team this season.

Until then, however, he will be a full participant this spring, sure to be scrutinized at every move, word and turn.

He’s expected to address the media at the start of camp. After that, the only thing that seems sure is he’ll command disproportionate attention throughout camp.

When did that wheelbarrow of cash that business operations president Crane Kenney promised suddenly go missing?

The Cubs have a big payroll. It’ll be well over $200 million for the first time in franchise history, and much of the apparent roster need this year was created by Epstein’s free-agent whiffs last winter.

But for a team still firmly in what might be a fast-closing window of legitimate World Series contention, it has been a frustrating and confusing winter for many fans as ownership has kept the purse strings pulled just snugly enough to keep the Cubs out of the bidding for a transformative bat (read: Bryce Harper).

What about the closer?

Remember Brandon Morrow? The lights-out closer who missed half of last season because of an elbow injury is expected to miss at least the first few weeks of the season as he completes his rehab from offseason surgery.

Pedro Strop, who took over closer duties when Morrow went down last season, said he’s ready to fill in again. And much of camp will be spent on auditioning a multitude of relievers for various jobs, including possible early-season duty as a matchup closer.

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Are the Cubs still the team to beat in the National League Central?

The on-paper improvements made by the Cardinals and Reds say maybe not. But the man who might have more to say about it than anyone else, provided he’s healthy, disagrees.

‘‘Yes,’’ right-hander Yu Darvish said. ‘‘No doubt.’’