Cubs have seen the payoffs in rebuilding

Cubs have seen the payoffs in rebuilding
March 12, 2013, 12:00 pm
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MESA, Ariz. -- Edwin Jackson came to Tampa Bay from Los Angeles in 2006, at a time when the Devil Rays were stockpiling young talent only to see the results fail to amount to anything but last-place finishes.

Two years after Jackson debuted in Tampa Bay, the Rays reached the World Series. Since then, they've been perennial contenders despite a payroll stretched thin. A constant stream of talented, young and cheap players have broken through in the majors, be it B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Jeremy Hellickson or David Price.

[MORE: Cubs: Jackson's turnaround began on the South Side]

The Cubs don't have small-market excuses, but they are hoping to see those same breakthroughs. Starlin Castro's already here, and Anthony Rizzo will play his first full season in the majors this year. Jorge Soler and Javier Baez are years away, but have certainly caught the eye of the Cubs' coaching staff this spring. Albert Almora is next in line behind them. Arodys Vizcaino could be an impact pitcher if he comes back healthy from Tommy John surgery.

It's a strong farm system, and one that'll only grow stronger when the Cubs make the second pick in the June draft. There's a crop of young players Jackson compares to the group he grew up with in Tampa Bay.

"It's pretty much the same thing, there's a lot of raw talent," Jackson said. "It's just a matter of going out and executing. The team in Tampa was not too much different than this team right here. We just went out and got the ball rolling on a positive note early and we just continued to thrive off the high that we had."

Almost no one is predicting the fast start and playoff run Jackson is hoping for this spring. But as Scott Feldman saw in Texas a few years ago, success can come fast with the right mix of players.

"We weren't very good for a long time,” Feldman said, “and then it kinda happened sorta quick. You could see everybody going in that direction in the minor leagues. You could see everybody coming up and hear all the hype about the prospects. It's sort of the same thing here. You can definitely draw some similarities."

While the Cubs have scaled back major-league payroll, Texas moved aggressively under new ownership, trading for Cliff Lee, and signing Adrian Beltre and Yu Darvish to complement a minor system bursting with talent. That's still the case today -- shortstop Jurickson Profar, regarded as the top prospect in baseball, remains blocked in the majors by two-time All-Star shortstop Elvis Andrus, who's only 24.

The Cubs aren't going to rush Baez and Soler, who aren't pushing established veterans for roster spots yet and are long shots just to be September call-ups. But in Year 2 of Camp Sveum, the blue-chip prospects, are hearing a consistent message.

[MORE: Baez, Soler's time in MLB camp nearing an end]

That kind of top-down organizational message helped the Twins win six division titles during the last decade. Scott Baker saw what manager Ron Gardenhire’s consistent message meant to Minnesota's sustained success.

"I don't know how many times I heard Gardy says those things," Baker said. "It was obviously conducive for us to win a lot of ballgames and win some divisions."

Baker signed with the Cubs in the offseason, giving him an up-close look at "The Cubs Way" for about a month. He sees the same top-down messages filtering through to the prospects who one day supposed to be cornerstones of a contending team.

"I see a lot of similarities in the fact you've got to play the game the right way," Baker said. "There's some things that Dale has really preached and harped on, as far as running balls out, making the plays, pitchers throwing the ball over so the guys can play behind you."

[RELATED: Baker fighting mental, physical battles in return to mound]

But some rebuilding projects never seem to end. Just ask David DeJesus, who spent eight years in Kansas City as the Royals cycled through managers and plenty of prospects who turned out to be busts. DeJesus saw the problem as not only a lack of major-league talent, but also an inability to bring in a top free agent -- like the Cubs did with Jackson, he said.

Kansas City, though, signed Gil Meche to a five-year, $55 million contract before the 2007 season. And while that deal wasn't popular among Royals fans starved for an ace, Meche was effective for his first two years in Kansas City -- a 3.82 ERA in 426 1/3 IP. That's actually not a bad benchmark for what Jackson can do with the Cubs.

Still, the Royals lost 180 games in the first two years of Meche's deal. Buddy Bell was fired and Trey Hillman was hired, and little changed. Zack Greinke won a Cy Young in 2009, and the Royals lost 97 games. By the time DeJesus left Kansas City, the Royals hired Ned Yost -- their fourth manager in eight seasons.

One difference DeJesus sees with the Cubs, though, is a better line of communication between the front office and clubhouse. DeJesus feels like his teammates know where they stand, and that helps with a big-picture outlook.

"I think Theo and stuff is more open about what's going on. In Kansas City, it was more (general manager) Dayton (Moore) had his thing," DeJesus said. "Theo's more open about it. I'm just hoping that we win. We just gotta produce wins at the major-league level. That's what it comes down to."

If the Cubs' rebuilding project is successful, it'll combine the talent of Tampa Bay, the consistent message of Minnesota and the spending ability of Texas, all while avoiding the pitfalls seen in Kansas City. While Baker, Feldman and DeJesus may not be around to see if the Cubs' young talent begins to produce wins, there's a belief among them that eventually things will work out.

"With the right pieces, it seems like they're heading in that direction," Baker said. "I can't see it not being successful."