Cubs open camp; optimism still for future

MESA, Ariz. -- The Chicago Cubs front office knows what the world thinks of their team -- and they’re just fine with it. After back-to-back last place finishes they aren’t interested in convincing anyone that they’re on the verge of breaking the 105-year championship drought. But they believe year 106 will get them a lot closer.

“I think we’ve made tremendous progress,” President Theo Epstein said on the opening day of spring training on Thursday. “There’s a real dichotomy on how the organization is perceived from the outside and how we look at it, internally. And the morale that we have, internally. There is a tremendous amount of talent in this organization.”

There’s little disputing that notion as every prospect ranking has the Cubs organization among the best in baseball. But until those prospects start producing more wins at the major league level, none of those rankings matter.

“The people that we have in place in this organization, I believe are impact," Epstein continued. “It takes time to turn an organization around but it’s happening. The people in this organization really believe that we’re on the verge of something special and we understand we’re perceived otherwise. And that’s our fault because we’ve been a last-place club the last couple years. We’re not protesting; we need to earn our way into a position where we’re championship contenders on an annual basis. We feel that is certainly moving in the right direction.”

Why the optimism?

It’s simple. Their talented minor league prospects -- almost to a man -- have shown huge improvement over the last 12 months. Whether it was a Single-A pitching staff winning a championship (they’ll move up to Double-A this year) or infielder Kris Bryant earning MVP of the Fall League or a huge year at age 20 for vicious swinger Javier Baez, the Cubs really didn’t have anyone regress. The worst that can be said is two of them -- Albert Almora and Jorge Soler -- had injury plagued seasons last year. Even then, they both performed when healthy.

What does this all mean for 2014? It probably won’t be a playoff year but that’s one reason eternal optimist Rick Renteria was hired as manager.

“You can’t enter any season without truly having expectations, otherwise what would be the purpose of being here,” Renteria asked rhetorically. “That’s the message.”

What else can he say? The Cubs have always been wary of using the word “rebuild” for fear of losing the 25 players on the current roster. But everyone knows what’s going on. If the playoffs don’t happen, this is Epstein’s idea of a successful season in 2014:

“This time next year I want us to be even healthier (stronger as an organization) and closer to accomplishing our vision of being an annual contender.”

It’s as specific as he can get in the middle of a rebuilding process. If there’s one thing fans need to understand it’s that there is incremental progress happening with individuals but that won’t necessarily translate to the same progress in the win/loss column. Not yet.

Epstein summed up the Cubs' strategy in a way that tells you he truly believes in what they’re doing.

“Being patient isn’t hard but it’s not fun,” he said.

It’s not hard because he knows the talent is coming.