Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein has been on the job trying to build the Cubs into a championship caliber team for 17 months and while he says that he believes that the organization is only 30 percent of the way done with their extensive overhaul of the entire franchise, don't tell him that the 2013 Cubs will lose 100 games for the second consecutive season.
"I'd be disappointed if that happened," Epstein told me Monday afternoon in Mesa, Ariz. "I think the key is what kind of start we get off to. If you look up in July and we're in it, we're gonna go for it. We talked about it before -- every chance to make the playoffs is sacred.
"And if we look up in July and take a cold assessment of our club and we're not in it, then we have to address our future. And then it could get ugly for the last couple months the way it did last year. A lot depends on that fork in the road, so nothing would surprise me either way."
As Epstein looked back at the first year-and-a-half of his Cubs tenure, he spoke as someone who is happy with the organization's steps forward, but knows that they have a long way to go.
"I am pleased with the progress that we've made, but you always want to do more," he said. "Obviously, it was a really difficult first year at the major league level, but there is a ton of momentum in this organization. A year ago, I felt like even internally we were trying to explain ourselves and lay out the program that we thought was best for the organization and see who was on board and who wasn't. Now that's all in the past and everyone who is here is on board.
"We feel great about where we are going. It was a huge year for the farm system and everything that happened behind the scenes. We don't want to keep talking about it. We can't wait for the season to start so we can go out and do it so our prospects can continue to develop. I think we are going to surprise some people at the major-league level with the quality and depth of our pitching staff. Each year the organization is getting healthier and healthier and that's what we want."
He also tempered the lofty rankings that have been given to the Cubs' vastly improved minor league system, with one analyst calling it the fifth best system in all of baseball.
"I think five is a little bullish," he told me. "We definitely made progress and are probably in the top third of baseball now, so somewhere in the Top 10. We made significant progress from last year and there were individual prospects like Javy Baez who took big steps forward. We added a deep draft class -- which helps -- and the Boise team (short season Northwest League) was full of prospects at just about every position. I think over a third of the top prospects in that league all belonged to the Boise club.
"Plus, we had the additions of some higher-profile guys like Jorge Soler and Albert Almora, which certainly helps. But as exciting to me as the players we have is what we have going on in our farm system from an instruction standpoint. We have individualized player plans for each player and great new coordinators who are bringing a tremendous amount of energy and knowledge to the table. There is a tremendous amount of momentum in player development and I can't wait to see where we are at the end of the year."
The Cubs have the second overall selection in June's First Year Player Draft and while the system is starving for high end pitching prospects, Epstein says he is not wedded to any particular position at the top of the draft.
"It'd be nice if there was an obvious, can't-miss college arm who could impact our big-league team in the next couple of years, but if you try to force it, that's how you end up regretting your pick for years to come," Epstein said. "History does show that there is a better probability for impact up high in the draft with position players, but if the right arm is there, we'll take him. You cannot dictate the draft. You have to go through the process and see what's there.
"At the end of the draft, we will have attacked pitching with volume and you can get pitching all over the draft. If you want elite position players, you have to be willing to pop that guy up top."
On the topic of the payroll he is given by the Ricketts family, Epstein believes once the team is ready to compete on a year-to-year basis, the money he needs will be there for him to spend.
"I don't have much concern about where the payroll was in the past," he said. "My concern is building up the organization so we get healthier and healthier and we have that core of talent so then we can justify when it's the right time to put the hammer down. Getting the payroll to a level where we can keep all the players that we develop, we can add from the outside and we can look down on paper and have a team that should win 90-plus games every single year.
"With the business plan that we have to complement our baseball plan and the timing the way that those two plans are synced up, I don't think we'll have a problem getting where we want to go."
"The way to win a World Series is by contending every single year. That's how you do it and it's the only sure-fire way to develop an elite organization. You have to know how you are going to get to the playoffs in a given year, but also know how you are going to do it for two, three, four years and know the next generation of players coming up behind them so that when you have expiring contracts, you match up prospects to take over when they are ready.
"You have to always be thinking one step ahead and have all your bases covered and create organizational redundancy to withstand the eventual adversity that you face through injuries and through unpredictable performance," he added. "We'll know when we get there and you should too because you should then be complaining that we only look like a 90-win team on paper and not a 95-win team. That's how we are going to get there. If you do it by chasing that one player who's going to take you to the promised land or by trying to chase that one season that's going to make up for a decade of failure, that's a fool's errand. We have to grow this thing one step at a time, but I feel great about the momentum that we have in that direction."