CHICAGO — After missing the National League Championship Series for the first time in four seasons, everyone in the Cubs organization is on notice.
And an offseason filled with anxiety and controversy -- but few significant roster moves -- leaves the Cubs with these nine questions as pitchers and catchers have their first workout of spring training Wednesday.
1. How is Kris Bryant's shoulder?
Kris Bryant was emphatic at last month's Cubs Convention that the right shoulder that sidelined him for 50 games in 2018 feels great.
But for the Cubs to feel better about their offense rebounding, they'll need to see a powerful and productive Bryant, who had only nine extra-base hits after returning Sept. 1 from his second stint on the disabled list.
2. What will Addison Russell have to say?
The publication this week of racist and Islamophobic emails from Joe Ricketts, the father of Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts, has rattled multiple communities. As for the other major off-field controversy, shortstop Addison Russell is expected to face reporters this month for the first time since being placed on administrative leave Sept. 21.
Russell's 40-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's domestic violence policy will carry into the first month of the season. President Theo Epstein said the team has remained in touch with the victim, Melisa Reidy, Russell's ex-wife, as well as with Russell. But as Epstein cautioned three weeks ago, "we're probably in the top of the second inning" with this story.
3. Will Joe Maddon take a more hands-on approach?
Manager Joe Maddon plans to spend more time coaching instead of observing workouts and talking expansively with reporters.
With a revamped coaching staff, his new style might work fine with the newcomers. But how will players adapt to another voice, and can the message remain singular -- especially in this era of hitting specialists from outside the organization?
4. How will the new coaches work out?
New pitching coach Tommy Hottovy specialized in run prevention as an advance scouting coordinator for the Cubs. New hitting coach Anthony Iapoce worked with several of the Cubs' young hitters as a special assistant before departing for the Rangers in 2016. And assistant hitting coach Terrmel Sledge worked with Ian Happ at Class A Eugene in 2015 before leaving for a higher position in the Dodgers organization.
Mark Loretta, meanwhile, is the Cubs' third bench coach in as many years as he returns to the field for the first time since retiring as a player after the 2009 season -- unless you count his coaching stint with Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Loretta had been working in the Padres baseball operations department.
Maddon messaged with Loretta within hours of Brandon Hyde taking the Orioles managing job. Many people are involved in the game planning that funnels through the players. The coaching changes reflect a need for sound communication.
5. Who will be the backup catcher?
The Cubs need to reach a happy medium with Willson Contreras, who led the majors in innings caught and has no plans to let up on his all-out style.
But considering Contreras' production faded in the second half and he used multiple setups, a productive backup must emerge while Contreras regains his power and polishes his pitch framing.
Non-roster invitee Francisco Arcia reached the majors last summer with the Angels after 11 1/2 minor-league seasons, and he will push Victor Caratini for the backup role unless the Cubs sign another catcher.
6. When will Brandon Morrow be ready?
Brandon Morrow's elbow surgery in November created more anxiety over a bullpen that lost Jesse Chavez to free agency and added Brad Brach as a late-inning option to complement Pedro Strop for the closer duties until Morrow returns.
Even with a repaired arm, Morrow is expected to miss at least the first month and won't be used in consecutive games as frequently as last season. His progress on the bullpen mounds and minor-league fields will be a measuring stick.
7. Who will bolster the bullpen?
The list of non-roster relievers in camp includes George Kontos, Colin Rea and Junichi Tazawa, who have thrown a combined 886 2/3 major-league innings. Tony Barnette, signed to a major-league deal, spent six seasons in Japan before pitching the last three for the Rangers.
This experience is essential as the Cubs used the bullpen 600 times in 2018 and Brian Duensing and Brandon Kintzler are coming off subpar seasons.
8. What to do with Tyler Chatwood?
Maddon is optimistic that Tyler Chatwood will rebound from his miserable 2018 season. But finding quality innings this spring for him might be a challenge, and it remains to be seen whether he can handle a long-relief role.
Chatwood will earn $25.5 million over the next two seasons. His situation is not unlike that of Edwin Jackson entering the 2015 season. Jackson pitched in long relief before the Cubs released him that July with another year left on his contract.
9. Will Jason Heyward and Co. break out?
Iapoce will be the Cubs' third hitting coach in as many seasons. Right fielder Jason Heyward provided the best perspective regarding him and his teammates who haven't improved at the plate.
"I know what I need to do," said Heyward, who has batted .252 with a .367 slugging percentage in three seasons with the Cubs. "Regardless of what any coach says to me or any of us, it's on the players at the end of the day."