CHICAGO -- It's the toughest of questions for Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein to answer: How is the transition or rebuilding process going?
To answer it straight out means to admit to it, which means admitting to another season of growth instead of contending. Epstein has to walk that fine line.
"It's postseason or bust every year," Epstein said Wednesday during a stop on the annual Cubs Caravan. "That said we're obviously building for something greater which is a time we can expect to be in the postseason every year. Behind the scenes, regardless of the results, there is progress being made. As far as 2013 you can define it as a success or failure by whether we make the postseason."
Only Epstein and his front office colleagues can make the call on whether 2013 will be a success "behind the scenes." In some ways that's where they have the upper hand. Who can legitimately say right now if things are moving in the right direction back there? Only as the young core grows -- or doesn't -- can we make judgments.
"It never goes quite as fast or quite as well as you want it to because no one likes to be in the situation where you're looking up at teams," Epstein said of rebuilding. "You want teams to be looking up at you. ... If we have another year as productive as this one was in terms of adding young players and having young players step up into the core then I'll feel great about the schedule that we're on."
So that means he'll feel great even if the Cubs lose close to or more than 100 games? Maybe the feeling is soon enough both notions will come together. If enough players are advancing then the losses should start to diminish.
The Cubs -- and their fans -- might not be ready to assess things in that manner but they shouldn't be far from doing so.
Jackson signing offers insight: The signing of Jackson to a four-year, $52 million deal gave more insight into how the Cubs are operating. While trying to acquire as much young talent as they can, they know they can't gamble on waiting for starting pitching if it becomes available. But it has to fit their exact profile.
"You can't wait for the perfect opportunity to acquire a pitcher or wait until right when you're ready to win the World Series to add 40 to 60 percent of your rotation," Epstein said. "You have to seriously considering adding pitchers when they're there if they check a lot of the boxes that you're looking for."
It's why Jackson and Anibal Sanchez, who re-signed with Detroit, fit the Cubs' bill. Jackson has made at least 31 starts in every full year of his career in the big leagues while Sanchez has done the same over the past three seasons.
"When a 29-year-old with a very consistent track record of being a solid, effective 200-inning a year, mid-rotation starter at a ... reasonable cost, we felt like it made a lot of sense," Epstein said.
It's good to know the Cubs aren't holding onto all their money. The idea of building a team shouldn't include signing key free agents only when the Cubs are on the verge of winning. They identified a weak spot in their system -- pitching -- and addressed it with a player who won't break them financially if he doesn't pan out when they are contenders.
That's the most important notion of all. To really roll the dice when on the verge of something special, like a World Series, makes sense. Taking a huge risk now, doesn't. But taking no risk might mean waiting too long for a need. The bottom line is Jackson is a top of the rotation guy now but won't be if the Cubs become the team they hope to be.
But he'll still be a part of it and that's what matters when signing bigger free agent contracts now.
"You make that kind of move knowing what's in your system, knowing what future free agent classes look like and what your future roster and payroll situation is," Epstein said. "If it makes sense you sort of hold your breath and move forward and when I say 'hold your breath' it's because free agent pitching is an inherently risky proposition. In that risky pool Edwin Jackson was about as safe a bet as you can find."
• Epstein indicated work on the 2013 pitching staff is done but there could be some tweaks among position players before or during spring training.
• Epstein called Baltimore and Oakland "inspirations" as teams that had much better than expected years and made the playoffs.
• Epstein indicated he didn't expect contentious negotiations with his three players who have filed for arbitration. Pitchers James Russell, Jeff Samardzjia and Matt Garza will exchange salary figures this week.