Cubs camp report: Things are looking up, but it's too early for a timetable

MESA, Az. – Famous for being great about once a half-century or so, the Cubs are primed to contend again in the not-too-distant future. It may not be this year, or even next. But sometime soon.

“I’m not going to put years on it, but it’s going to be really good when it comes together,’’ Cubs president Theo Epstein said.

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Things are looking up, and not only because it would be near-to-impossible to go down. The Cubs lost 101 games in the first year of the Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime, posting a worse record than any Cubs team since 1966 and everyone but the stripped-down Astros. But to be fair, things didn’t get out of hand until they traded two starters (Paul Maholm and Ryan Dempster), lost one to injury (Matt Garza) and shut down a fourth, their new ace (Jeff Samardzija).

Realistically, the Cubs had enough talent last year to lose only 95, maybe 90, and they’re a bit better than that now. An even bigger plus: the talent base is expanding, suggesting future success.

When Epstein and Co. arrived before last season, they knew they had at least one star “core’’ player for the future, multitalented shortstop Starlin Castro, who they locked up for six more years, and now they possess several more possible core guys, either here or on the way. They include Samardzija the newbie starter, slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, international outfield signee Jorge Soler plus draftees Javier Baez, a shortstop, and Albert Almora, an outfielder. The pipeline works.

Soler, an all-around talent with light-tower power, is drawing raves in Cubs camp. But he’s due to begin the season at Daytona Beach, the Cubs’ high A-ball team, and several of the others are stars of the future, not the present, including also outfielder Brett Jackson, first baseman Dan Vogelbach, infielder Junior Lake and pitchers Arodys Vizcaino and Pierce Johnson. It also can’t hurt that they have the No. 2 overall draft pick, and the second most money to spend internationally.

The far-away future looks extremely bright, especially if they can add more pitching talent. Meanwhile, the present brings at least a little more hope, thanks to a few judicious free-agent pitching signings, the expected first full year of starting from the hard-throwing Samardzija and the hoped-for return to health of Garza, who is slowed by a side strain early (so think only 85 losses this time around).

If the Cubs get some luck (they’re due after all, having not won a World Series title since 1908, meaning no Cubs fan alive recalls it) and a little traction, and they surprise some folks, they’d be in position to add players, as a big-market, bigger-revenue team with money to spend. But if they get off slow yet again, they won’t hesitate to sell, with Alfonso Soriano (who had a big year in 2012 and even improved defensively in left field), David DeJesus, Garza and other veteran pitchers, including the recent buys, being the prime candidates to go should it become clear that this will be the 105th straight season without a World Series win.

Epstein hopes for the best. But these being the Cubs, the other remains a distinct possibility. A rough first few months will lead to a “cold assessment,’’ which means Epstein/Hoyer won’t be afraid to become selloff central again.

“There’s no glory in trying to win 78 games,’’ Epstein said.

Excuse Epstein for not quite accepting the ways of the Cubbies yet. Perhaps if he hadn’t won two World Series in nine seasons as general manager in Boston he’d be more understanding of the history here.

In any case, there’s a chance this team could avoid the cold start followed by the colder assessment, as it possesses a respectable front three in the rotation, with free agent Edwin Jackson joining Samardzija and Garza at the top of the rotation following his surprise $52-million, four-year signing, plus several other potentially respectable starters, including three more free-agent signs -- Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva and Scott Baker, who should miss a month before joining the fray in May.

Jackson’s dollars reflect his youth and ability to eat innings, but there are Cubs people who believe they have unlocked a key to help him finally reach his potential. Samardzija may already be there after the Cubs wisely listened to his pleas to let him move from the pen to the rotation last year, perhaps the best move they made their initial season on the North Side. Samardzija is a natural for the top of the rotation, a semi-local (he’s from Northwest Indiana) who starred at Notre Dame before jumping to the Cubs.

Two more relatively low-budget free-agent pickups, Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz, could perform a respectable platoon in rightfield, aiding what appears to be a serviceable lineup with Castro, Rizzo and Soriano at its heart. The Cubs scored only 613 runs a year ago, which was only better than the Marlins and the Astros. A full season with Rizzo will help, and better years from Castro and Darwin Barney wouldn’t hurt, either.

“We’re probably a lot better than some people think,’’ Epstein said. “We certainly have a better pitching staff than last year. There’s a lot of talent in this camp. One through sixty, it’s a lot better. There’s a lot of momentum in the organization. People see the talent coming.’’

This being the Cubs, and a rebuilding Cubs team at that, reality could strike at any moment, as Epstein well knows. There are plenty of areas for concern. Closer Carlos Marmol walked about seven per nine innings last year, which explains why the Cubs came close to trading him (they had a deal in place at one point for Dan Haren), and the offense isn’t going to knock anyone over.

They’re going need to score more runs without making any major positional pickups. Third base is a particular area of concern with Ian Stewart starting spring sluggishly, and manager Dale Sveum talking up journeyman Luis Valbuena. The best hope, though, is improvement from their young players, including Rizzo, second baseman Darwin Barney (who is already there as a defender) and catcher Wellington Castillo.

“If we get off to a good start, I think we have a chance,’’ Soriano said, striking the usual Cubs stance filled with hopefulness . “I think we have a very good chance with the pitching we have here. This is the second year this group’s been together. The team that wins the World Series isn’t the best team. It’s the team that plays the best at the right time.’’

While they are better and deeper, and may surprise a few folks, it would take almost across-the-board outperformance contend this year. There is, however, a nice positive vibe going, giving rise to hope, which isn’t uncommon with the Cubs and their hungry fans. Not everyone is saying, wait ‘til next year. Not yet, anyway.



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