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Column: Chicago Cubs search for magic of 2016 after ‘winter of reckoning’

Chicago Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber, left, Albert Almora Jr., center, and Jason Heyward celebrate their 7-2
Outfielders Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Jason Heyward, from left, celebrate the Chicago Cubs’ 7-2 victory over the Dodgers on Tuesday in Chicago.
(Jim Young / Associated Press)

Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras visited the office of Dodgers manager Dave Roberts late one night in July. The circumstances made the encounter less peculiar than it sounds: Roberts had just finished managing the National League in the All-Star game. Contreras had started behind the plate.

Contreras thanked Roberts for his stewardship during the All-Star festivities. Roberts commended Contreras for his passion during the process. They made plans to reconnect — as opponents in the playoffs that October.

The reunion never happened.

Nothing in baseball is inevitable, but postseason dalliances between the Dodgers and the Cubs felt that way not so long ago. The Cubs downed the Dodgers in the 2016 NL Championship Series en route to ending their 108-year World Series championship drought. The Dodgers toppled the Cubs the next autumn and captured their first NL pennant since 1988.

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“We’ve played some very meaningful games these past few years,” Roberts said. “Dodgers-Cubs, it’s a good rivalry.”

But there would not be a third round in 2018. The Dodgers returned to the World Series, but the Cubs were not in their path. Chicago lost control of its division in Game 163 against the Milwaukee Brewers, then crashed out of the playoffs by losing the wild-card game to the Colorado Rockies. The Cubs had averaged 97 wins a year since hiring manager Joe Maddon in 2015, but president of baseball operations Theo Epstein still declared a “winter of reckoning” awaited the organization after the early exit.

While Roberts inked a four-year extension in the offseason, Maddon returned to the dugout without a contract for 2020. The organization weathered the fallout from a series of damaging off-field incidents. The front office spent little, still waiting for contributions from their previous free-agent acquisitions. They face staunch in-division competition from the Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals.

With the Dodgers still searching for that elusive World Series title, the Cubs are trying to recapture the magic of 2016. No team has won back-to-back championships since the New York Yankees in 1999 and 2000. No NL team has completed the feat since the Cincinnati Reds’ Big Red Machine in 1975 and 1976. The Kansas City Royals haven’t been back to the postseason since winning it all in 2015. The Houston Astros did not repeat in 2018. The Boston Red Sox currently reside in last place in the American League East.

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Yet, in the wake of their historic victory, the Cubs appeared well positioned to be different. The front office led by Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer drew raves for their blend of analytical insight and scouting acumen. The team had transformed a refurbished Wrigley Field into a lucrative revenue stream. And at the center of the Cubs roster were four young position players: third baseman Kris Bryant, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Kyle Schwarber.

Rizzo remains a productive force at the center of Chicago’s lineup, but the others have become less reliable. Bryant, the 2016 NL most valuable player, played with a damaged shoulder for most of 2018 and entered Wednesday with a .691 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Schwarber was hitting .197 through Tuesday. And Russell had not played an inning for the Cubs this season.

The situation with Russell is far more troubling than a slump at the plate. He spent last weekend playing games at the team’s Arizona complex as he served the final days of a 40-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy. The suspension occurred in September after Russell’s ex-wife, Melisa Reidy, accused him of physical and emotional abuse.

Russell did not appeal his suspension. The Cubs put him on the restricted list, but tendered him a contract for this season through arbitration. Maddon indicated he had not yet spoken to Russell about what reception awaits him when he returns to the majors in early May.

“I know he’s eager and anxious to get out there,” Maddon said. “So one thing at a time. Let’s get him playing, see how that’s going. And then after that, we’ll make a call. I’m certain that we will discuss those things prior to getting here. But for right now, it’s been pretty much baseball-related conversations.”

The situation with Russell added to a list of incidents that dented the organization’s reputation. In the summer of 2016, the Cubs traded for closer Aroldis Chapman after he returned from a 30-day suspension for violating the domestic violence policy. Before the season, the Dodgers had pulled out of talks to acquire Chapman after the allegations against him went public.

Last offseason, the website Splinter News unearthed emails sent by and forwarded to Joe Ricketts, the founder and former chief executive of TD Ameritrade, whose children purchased the Cubs in 2009. The emails outlined conspiracy theories about President Obama and spread fear-mongering toward Muslims. Tom Ricketts, Joe’s son and the team’s chairman, apologized for the emails at the outset of spring training.

At that same news conference in February, Ricketts made a flippant comment about the team’s finances. The Cubs did not fling money at free agents last offseason, he explained, because “we don’t have any more.” The joke overshadowed the context, in which the organization was still waiting to recoup value from three investments before the 2018 season.

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After falling to the Dodgers in 2017, the Cubs reloaded with two former Dodgers. They signed pitcher Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126-million contract and reliever Brandon Morrow to a two-year, $21-million deal. They also added pitcher Tyler Chatwood on a three-year, $38-million contract. The $185-million collection of arms combined to contribute precisely 0.0 wins above replacement last season, according to Baseball-Reference.

Morrow sat out the second half of 2018 because of a back injury and has been sidelined this year after offseason elbow surgery. There is no timetable for his return. Darvish remains enigmatic. He reported to camp healthy after requiring elbow surgery in September, yet has posted a 5.96 earned-run average in five starts. Injuries forced Chatwood back into the rotation; in his first start of the season, he spun six scoreless innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“I’m almost in the same place as he was last year,” Darvish said. “I hope I can do like he has.”

After starting 3-8, the Cubs won eight of their next 10 games, including a 7-2 victory over the Dodgers on Tuesday. Rizzo homered. Bryant made nifty plays at third base. Star infielder Javier Baez danced around first baseman David Freese for an infield single. The Cubs looked eager to prove their window on building a dynasty had not closed.

“You want to do it the right way,” Maddon said. “Because then you can sustain it.”

andy.mccullough@latimes.com

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes

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