Opinion: Chicago Cubs, Anthony Rizzo could be looking at last season with team’s nucleus

MESA, Ariz. — There was no bitterness or indignation in first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s voice Monday, but resignation that despite wanting to spend the rest of his career with the Chicago Cubs, he’ll now be the face of their Last Stand.

Rizzo, who has been with the Cubs at the beginning of their rebuild, was an integral part of their World Series championship and playoff run, says he’s now braced to be a free agent and finish his career elsewhere.

“It’s just part of the business,’’ said Rizzo, 31. “Like I’ve stated many times before, I love Chicago. I love the fans. I love what Wrigley Field and being a Chicago Cubs is all about.

“But obviously it didn’t work out thus far, and that’s OK. I’m at peace with it.’’

Pardon Cubs fans for not sharing the same sentiments.

They are outraged that the team that won the 2016 World Series, earning a playoff berth in five of the past six years, shedding their lovable losers image, now are being dismantled before their very eyes.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo could be looking at his final season with the Chicago Cubs. (Photo: Rick Scuteri, USA TODAY Sports)

The Cubs already dumped Yu Darvish for salary relief this winter, refused to spend $4 million to keep veteran starter Jon Lester around and let outfielder Kyle Schwarber walk away.

Now, they are doing the same with their nucleus, telling Rizzo his desire for a long-term commitment doesn’t fit into their plans, stopped talking about an extension with 2016 MVP Kris Bryant years ago, and their negotiations with All-Star shortstop Javy Baez have gone nowhere.

The Cubs' only chance to keep this nucleus together is by winning, thwarting the ownership and front office’s plans, but if they struggle during the first half, get ready to to have a Cubs star coming to a city near you by the July 31 trade deadline.

How frustrated are Cubs fans about the abrupt change of direction?

“I don’t know, from an outsider looking in,’’ Rizzo said, “I’d probably be frustrated, too. Just because you have this team that’s very talented. We haven’t lived up to our expectations the last few years, and that’s a credit to us players of being frustrated as a fan. When I sit back and put my fan hat on, and my teams don’t make it to the playoffs, I’m [teed] off.

“When my team is in the rebuilding stage, it’s more acceptable. But these last five, six, seven years, we’ve been in win-now mode. As a fan when you’re in win-now mode, it’s a lot easier to get be ticked off at your team and what your franchise is doing because of the expectations.’’

The Cubs have a $155.5 million payroll this year, about $55 million shy of the $210 million luxury tax, but no longer are willing to push their payroll to the limits. They have $53.65 million coming off their payroll with pending free agents Rizzo, Bryant, Baez and closer Craig Kimbrel, leaving just $40.5 million on the books next year.

Oh, and you wondered why Theo Epstein walked away from his $10 million salary this year as club president, not wanting any part of the painful rebuilding project?

“These guys have been fantastic Cubs that did something historic together,’’ Jed Hoyer, who was promoted from GM to Epstein’s role, said this spring. “They’re always going to be legends for the Cubs. We’ve said all along, pretty clearly, we’d like to keep some of these players. That’d be great.

“But it’s unrealistic to keep all of the players that were a significant part of 2016. That’s just the reality.”

And the truth is that Rizzo is learning first-hand that loyalty goes only as far as you’re under a club-friendly contract.

“It’s been an amazing ride,’’ Rizzo said, “and I don’t think it’s over yet. It’s part of the business. This is business and you need to separate it because every business person will tell you there’s no friendships really in business.

“From the Anthony Rizzo business standpoint, it’s just take some steps back and realize what’s going on. From a player and human-being standpoint, we’ll take some steps back and see what’s going on. I can’t tell you what the future holds.’’

Certainly, something could dramatically change and the Cubs and Rizzo come to an agreement, but with an extension deadline of opening day, he instructed his agents to no longer talk about contract negotiations.

“We’ve had enough time to talk and try to figure it out,’’ said Rizzo, a career .271 hitter with an .857 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) to go along with 229 homers and 753 RBI. “It was good just to have clarity one way or the other, and now I can get ready for the season.’’

Who knows if it will be Rizzo’s last season in Chicago, but, hey it was a good time while it lasted. He and his teammates will forever be rock stars in Chicago for breaking the 108-year curse.

Sure, they fully expected to have at least another World Series banner hanging at Wrigley Field. No one envisioned that after winning it all in 2016 and the NL Division Series in 2017, they would have now gone 1,259 days and counting since their last postseason victory.

“It would be pretty sweet,’’ Cubs veteran starter Jake Arrieta said, “to do it all over again.’’

The Cubs, despite their flaws, are certainly in the right division to reach the postseason. The St. Louis Cardinals, who acquired Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado, is the only team in the NL Central to even make a modest improvement. There’s no reason why the Cubs won’t be competitive again, and if they’re still hanging around in July, it could ruin the front office’s plans to trade their stars for prospects.

How can you gut a team if you’re still in contention?

“I’m happy with what we have,’’ Rizzo said. “I know the guys are excited in our clubhouse right now. We feel strong.

“I think we have a young, fun, kind of older, but young veteran group that has the makings of being a very fun team. We have a lot to prove.’’

Take one last look at them. Their reign is coming to an end. Only their performance will dictate whether they delay their breakup.

“I’ll have zero regrets,’’ Rizzo says, “no matter what happens with this.”

Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale

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