Theo sees changes coming to Wrigley (or bust)

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Theo sees changes coming to Wrigley (or bust)

The Cubs lost 101 games last season and it has been 104 years and counting since their last World Series title. But if you are willing to overlook that and suspend your disbelief, you can actually see the pieces forming for a mega-team.

This is the time to do it, with temperatures around the freezing point, pitchers and catchers less than a month away from reporting to Arizona and the fanfest downtown this weekend. Get ready to hear all about the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland As and the Cubs wondering: Why not us?

The Cubs will point to the outliers, how the Orioles flipped their record from the year before and went 93-69, how the As won 20 more games and the American League West. But the Cubs are really gearing up for 2015, when they think they can emerge as no-doubt-about-it contenders and stay at that level.

The forces are lining up that way, from the monster television deals on the horizon, to the prime years with guys like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro to the ETA for some prospects in Chicago this week, getting a taste of life in the big city as part of the rookie development program.

And the juice that will come with a renovated Wrigley Field. Team president Theo Epstein was coy on Wednesday when asked for an update on those plans.

Um, I think there will be some sharing of information on that later this week, so I dont want to be a spoiler, Epstein said. Well see what happens this weekend.

The Cubs had stopped at a Marine Corps base on the Northwest Side to serve lunch as part of their winter caravan, which leads up to their convention at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. Its unclear how this idea would be financed, but an official press release highlighted a Renew Wrigley Field session on Saturday with the teams business executives, who like to make news during that space.

There will be a lot of talk about the future, where Javier Baez might fit, whether or not Brett Jackson can become a core player and how much longer fans will have to wait to see Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.

But Epstein believes this is a team that can compete right away.

Absolutely, otherwise theres no reason to show up or build a team, Epstein said. Its postseason or bust every year. Thats what our goal is. Now that said, were obviously building for something greater, which is a time when we can expect to be in the postseason every year.

So behind the scenes, regardless of the results, theres progress being made. But as far as 2013, you can define it as a success or failure by whether we make the postseason and, ultimately, whether we win the World Series.

There are stories every year about teams that dont necessarily look like the favorites on paper that find their way playing meaningful games in September and playing into October and playing deep into October.

What else is he supposed to say?

Well, Epstein thinks Matt Garza and Scott Baker should be ready for an Opening Day rotation that will include Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson.

Dale Sveum sees Rizzo and Castro taking huge leaps forward, and a deeper bullpen with Carlos Marmol as closer and Kyuji Fujikawa setting up in the eighth inning. The manager welcomes greater expectations in Year 2.

The one thing you hate doing is saying: You know, .500 will be good. Because its not good, Sveum said. Its not 101 losses, but .500 isnt getting you to the playoffs.

Nothings acceptable except playing in the playoffs. The thing that you cant fall victim to is (saying): Yeah, we are obviously in a transition in the organization. We are trying to get it healthy. Dont fall into the category that we cant win right now. Baseballs a funny thing.

But this front office isnt hoping for a one-year fluke. Epstein insisted that signing Jackson to a four-year, 52 million deal was consistent with his philosophy. It made sense given Jacksons age (29) and durability (180-plus innings the past five seasons) combined with the organizations financial flexibility and lack of impact pitchers.

As Epstein said: I dont think we ever wanted to get into a situation where we had to wake up one day and say: Oh, now were going to be competitive. We have to go sign Players X, Y and Z. Thats not a good position to be in, so adding the right piece as you go along that fits the present and the future is something that well certainly be open to.

But the Cubs are still in a place where theyre willing to see if Ian Stewart and Nate Schierholtz can become everyday players. They arent quite ready to sacrifice a draft pick and part of their signing-bonus pool to sign a free agent.

And if it doesnt work out in 2013, well, Cubs fans are already used to hearing this message: Wait until next year.

Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs have so much going for them, all this blue-chip talent, a clubhouse mix of young players and grizzled veterans, arguably the best manager in the game, an impactful coaching staff and a front office that blends scouting and analytics as well as anyone.

So, no, John Lackey is not at all surprised by the way this clicked into place, 101 wins and counting for the machine built with October in mind.

“Not really,” Lackey said after Tuesday night’s 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I had some pretty good offers from other people, and I chose this one for a reason. It’s all here.”

But to win the World Series — and get the jewelry Lackey talks about — you still need some luck, good health and the guts to perform in those Big Boy Games. That reality of randomness and matchups made a pregame announcement some 250 miles away from PNC Park so telling.

Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee, ending his MVP-caliber season. The National League East champions will lose a .307 hitter with 22-homer power from the middle of their lineup and a veteran presence for a playoff rotation that will likely be without injured ace Stephen Strasburg (right elbow) in the first round.

“That’s a tough one when you lose your catcher, a guy who’s that significant for the pitching staff,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Think about the pitching staff — it’s so different when you know the guy back there is your guy and he knows what’s going on. The communication’s different. The trust factor, all that stuff is different.”

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Within that big-picture context, the Cubs survived as Lackey limited the checked-out Pirates (77-80) to one run across five innings in his fifth start since recovering from a strained right shoulder and coming off the disabled list. Maddon then used six different relievers — staying away from Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman — during a three-hour, 49-minute game that felt more like the Cactus League.

After defecting from the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team the Cubs bounced out of last year’s playoffs, Lackey finished the regular season at 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA and 188 1/3 innings.

“I’m going to get to 200,” Lackey said.

Beyond wins and losses, Lackey called this season his career best in terms of “those numbers that they’ve made up in the last few years” like WHIP (1.04) and opponents’ OPS (.646) and whatever. And, no, he doesn’t know his WAR, either: “Not even close.”

Yes, the Cubs got the old-school attitude they wanted when they signed Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal before the winter meetings. For all the talk about the pitching deficit and the New York Mets after their young guns swept the Cubs out of last year’s NL Championship Series, the Cubs are getting their money’s worth with a guy who will turn 38 in October.

The amazing Mets have lost three of those frontline starters — Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome), Jacob deGrom (nerve damage in his right elbow) and Steven Matz (bone spur in his left elbow) — and are still holding onto the first wild-card spot, which says something about this playoff field.

This doesn’t guarantee anything in October, but the Cubs are just about as close to full strength as they could reasonably hope now. Instead of the silence that would have come with losing an irreplaceable player like Ramos, the sound system in the postgame clubhouse blasted Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G. after their 101st win.

“Yeah, we lost Dexter (Fowler) for a bit,” Maddon said. “We lost (Kyle) Schwarber all year. Otherwise, when a couple pitchers got banged up, whether you’re talking about Rondon or Strop, I don’t think that our injuries have been as magnified because we’ve covered them pretty well.

“We still had our moments, like everybody else has. But when you get to right now, we’re getting well, and hopefully that trend continues. But to lose somebody of that magnitude for them, that’s got to be difficult.”