ST. LOUIS — At the end of a reality-check season, Starlin Castro stood in front of his locker and motioned at Anthony Rizzo as he walked across the room.
“Two or three years, I think we’ll be competing,” Castro said. “Me and this guy right there, we’ll work together, and we’ll be a good team, for sure.”
The Cubs have invested $100 million in those core players. Castro sounded upbeat, confident that this will be a valuable learning experience. The All-Star shortstop refuses to believe he’s a .245 hitter. He looked forward to playing more with his buddy Junior Lake and helping Javier Baez if/when the kid makes it to The Show.
But it’s been 105 years since this franchise won a World Series, and Cubs fans and the Chicago media will only have so much patience with Theo Epstein’s rebuilding plan. The Cubs finished Year 2 at 66-96, buried in last place in a division that features three playoff teams with at least 90 wins.
After Sunday’s 4-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, players shook hands and packed their bags inside Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. Manager Dale Sveum waited for Monday’s meeting in Chicago to find out if he’s fired or not, though he’s not really the sentimental type.
“It might be a little tough saying goodbye to some guys and stuff like that, but in the dugout you’re locked in on a game,” Sveum said. “You don’t really think about that.”
There are so many variables here, from the hit rate on prospects to the gridlock surrounding the Wrigley Field renovation to the staggered way the Cubs are trying to cash in on their TV deals.
Jeff Samardzija — the only player left from the 2008 team that won 97 games — talked about continuity and gave Sveum a vote of confidence.
“He’s a great guy, a great coach,” Samardzija said. “As a player, you want consistency. You want to build those relationships, and you want that to lean on at certain times when you need that.
“But all we can say is: Who knows? It’s not our call. They haven’t contacted us or anything. It’s whatever they want to do and what they feel is best for the organization. I know I want to win. I know the guys in here want to win. And that’s the bottom line.”
In front of a sellout crowd for Game 162, Samardzija took the loss and gave up three runs in six innings. The Opening Day starter didn’t have the dominant wire-to-wire season he envisioned. But he has more data points when the Cubs explore a long-term extension this winter: 8-13 with a 4.34 ERA and 214 strikeouts in 213 2/3 innings.
“I got two years still in arbitration,” Samardzija said. “I’m a ways away from free agency, so there’s still a chance for me to grow and build and get stronger — and grow with this team.
“We need to get stronger and improve and be ready to compete, day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out against these teams — the Cardinals, the Reds and the Pirates — to get in the playoffs.
“Because that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about playing six months. It’s about playing that seventh month and that’s it. Otherwise, you’re just out here buying time. I want to win. I want to pitch in October.”
The Cubs can’t afford up-and-down years from Samardzija, Castro and Rizzo as they try to incorporate all these hyped prospects. Rizzo — who hit .233 with 23 homers and 80 RBIs — sounded optimistic but less urgent.
“Theo came in, and he knows what he’s doing,” Rizzo said. “He’s done it before, and he’s going to do it again here. Everyone else with him on board has been great. Dale’s been great. The whole coaching staff’s been great. I’ve heard nothing but good things about (our minor league system). Hopefully, everyone continues to develop.”
But talking about the future is getting old. The manager and the coaches sitting on the hot seat — plus the 88 different players used since Opening Day 2012 — have to wear it.
Just ask homegrown lefty James Russell, who has played for Lou Piniella, Mike Quade and Sveum and hopes he doesn’t have another new manager when pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Ariz., in February 2014.
“It sucks because you’re in the present, and you have no clue where the end of the tunnel is and how long it’s going to take,” Russell said. “Who knows? It could be next year. It could be five years after that. There’s no telling, but it kind of makes you want to work harder, because everybody in the clubhouse wants to be that team that wins in Chicago.”