Hope still springs eternal in Chi-Town, elsewhere

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Theo Epstein helped the Red Sox win two titles. Can he do the same for the Cubs?

About this time every year, a few thousand Cubs reporters, bloggers and fans pen stories about their favorite baseball team. All of these stories are called "Hope springs eternal."

No really, you can look through the archives. Every single spring training story about the Cubs from the past hundred years or so is called, "Hope springs eternal." (I believe I'm responsible for at least two of them.)

It's not just a clever play on words, it's entirely apropos for a fan base that begins each year with a statistically improbable, factually unfounded and emotionally inadvisable belief that "This is the year!"

The Cubs are like that great old pair of jeans from college you refuse to throw out. The button and the hole keep getting farther apart but you bring the jeans out of the closet each fall, just in case this is the year you can finally get 'em over your big ol' butt. It's a torturous process, but you never learn your lesson.

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Former Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano will take his talents to South Beach.

Well the Cubs' butt (so to speak) isn't any smaller this year. In fact, they're not likely to win any more games than they did last season (71-91), there's almost no chance they'll win the division and they certainly aren't gonna be playing in October.

And yet, when I arrived in Mesa, Ariz., last week to take in a couple of spring games, hope was as high as ever -- higher, even. And, believe it or not, it's for good reason.

For the first time in a long time, Cubs fans trust the guys in charge.

Owner Tom Ricketts proved he cares about more than just easy money by going out and getting one of the best minds in baseball, Theo Epstein, to be the team's president of baseball operations. Epstein further strengthened the team's brain trust, bringing in GM Jed Hoyer and director of scouting and player development Jason McLeod, two guys who helped him win rings in Boston.

The Three Cubs-kateers have wasted no time remaking the team's roster, most notably sending tantrum-thrower Carlos Zambrano to Miami and allowing disgruntled third baseman Aramis Ramirez to leave in free agency. Moves have been, for the most part, smart and cheap -- no big-name free agents or big-number contracts.

The changes are coming off the field, as well. After years of turning a blind eye (or at least a near-sighted one) to advanced statistical analysis, the Cubs have partnered with Bloomberg Sports on a player evaluation system -- the Chicago version of the "Carmine" computer program Epstein used in Boston.

These moves won't make the Cubs winners overnight. A look at the projected 2012 lineup tells you they'll probably have trouble scoring. And, judging from the starting rotation, they'll likely have trouble preventing other teams from scoring, too.

The new regime is thinking three, five, 10 years down the road, hoping to eventually turn the Cubs into a consistent contender. For a fan base that's already waited 104 years, what's a few more, right?

Of course Cubs fans aren't the only ones seeing their beer mugs half-full this spring.

The Marlins, who were fifth in the NL East last year with a 72-90 mark, have added a fiery new skipper in Ozzie Guillen, a handful of big names and will play in a brand-new stadium in 2012. Even if new acquisitions Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell don't get South Florida fans pumped, you can be sure a few blow-ups from Guillen and Zambrano will put some butts in the seats.

The Nationals added pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to a rotation that already boasts promising young stars Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.

The Angels, second in the AL West last year, got better by adding ace C.J. Wilson to an already strong rotation and landing the biggest fish in the free-agency pond, Albert Pujols.

Pittsburgh fans have gotten used to their team being the butt of every joke, but if the Pirates keep adding and developing young talent, they'll be true contenders in a few years, and might even sneak into the expanded postseason.

Cincinnati added ace Mat Latos to its rotation and closer-of-the-future Sean Marshall to its bullpen. With Pujols and Prince Fielder out of the division, the Reds look poised to take the NL Central this year.

Which brings us back to my Cubs, who will likely be looking up at the Reds all year. The age-old Cubs mantra -- There's always next year -- usually uttered near the end of the season, may need to be on the lips of Cubs fans right from the start of 2012. And probably the start of 2013, as well. But soon enough, next year will be here.

And then, after a World Series win and a celebration the likes of which we've never seen before, Cubs scribes can find a new headline for the start of spring training.

"Ringing in spring?" "Hope rings eternal?"

Eh, I've got a couple of years to think of a good one.

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