Where will the Cubs be in two years?
The pieces are starting to come together for Theo Epstein, who took over the Cubs front office two years and two weeks ago.
So in another 24 months, the president of baseball operations could be spending his November talking about building for the next Cubs' playoff run rather than announcing the next manager or cautioning the media and the fanbase that there are no quick fixes to dig a franchise out of a third straight 90-plus loss season.
As members of the Cubs front office head to Orlando for the GM meetings Monday, Epstein evaluated the state of the franchise now that the new face — manager Rick Rentera — is set in place.
"If you look at a two-year window going forward as opposed to a two-year window looking back, now we're actually going to start breaking in a lot of our core prospects," Epstein said after an event for season-ticket holders Friday. "It puts a premium on the teaching, the environment and the amount of support and accountability at the major-league level.
"I'm excited about the progress we've made in the minor leagues. Not just that we're ranked 'here' or we have 'this many' of the top prospects in the game, but the morale in the minor leagues. Our players fully believe in 'The Cubs Way.'
"A lot of our prospects feel like it's a secret. 'The Cubs are coming.' That's what they tell each other."
Epstein always says progress isn't linear, but the farm system has been on a steady incline across the two years of Epstein's tenure. By every measure, the Cubs' system ranks in the top 5 in the game and could see as many as four prospects among the top 20 lists.
After Javier Baez put the baseball world on notice with his impressive minor league season (37 homers, 111 RBIs) the Cubs have watched as three of their top prospects — Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler — turn heads in the Arizona Fall League, baseball's biggest autumn showcase. While it's not out of the question to see Baez or Bryant at Wrigley Field sometime late in the 2014 season, there is no immediate hope on the horizon for the big league club from this powerful quartet.
Free agency will kick into high gear at the GM meetings this week, and Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will continue looking for pieces to help the major league product, targeting at least one more starting pitcher, bullpen help and offensive players who can boost the team's deflated on-base percentage.
The Cubs acquired reliever Pedro Strop from the Orioles in the Scott Feldman deal in July, and the 28-year-old righty put up a 2.83 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 10.8 K/9 in 37 games in Chicago, instilling thoughts he could take over as the team's closer.
But Epstein said they will head into free agency with a complete closing opportunity to hand to a pitcher if the right situation presents itself, allowing Strop to stay in a setup role and improving the bullpen as a whole.
The Cubs' starting pitching is in a much better position than at this point last year with the emergence of Travis Wood and the addition of Edwin Jackson to go with Jeff Samardzija in filling three spots. The success Jake Arrieta (also in the Feldman deal) and Chris Rusin had at the end of the 2013 season will put them in the conversation for a rotation spot in spring, providing depth in case of injury or ineffectiveness.
The free-agent market for impact starting pitching is slim once again, but the front office will keep its ear to the ground and will continue talks with veteran Scott Baker, who made three starts for the Cubs after rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
"First and foremost, we're looking for players that can help us now who also make sense for the future," Epstein said. "If you can acquire a player who's entering his prime, all the better. Those are the players you sort of harbor all your resources for and then really try to acquire.
"But they're few and far between. Beyond that, you're sort of balancing interests and making sacrifices ... and trying to attain as much quality pitching as you can given your resources and the amount of flexibility you have."
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The Cubs tried that last winter with Edwin Jackson, handing the then-29-year-old a $52 million deal over four years. Jackson wound up leading the National League in losses in his worst season since his first year as a starter in 2007.
Epstein was "self-critical" on Jackson's signing, admitting the front office got a little impatient but pointed to the lack of quality, young starting pitching available in free agency.
"It's important for us to remember the plan that's in place and to stay focused on building that core," Epstein said. "But if there's an opportunity to acquire an asset at a fair price, we also have to be aggressive and pick our spots."