In Giants, Cubs see latest blueprint

If a "foundation for sustained success" is what Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein wants to build, he knows where to look for the latest and trendiest model.

The San Francisco Giants just won their second World Series title in three seasons and the most recent one, wrapped up Sunday night with a four-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers, showed that titles aren't necessarily won by the organization that stockpiles the most superstars.

Where the Cubs stand the best chance of emulating the Giants is by packaging fundamentally sound players around a talented nucleus.

Buster Posey is the only superstar of the Giants' starting lineup, although Pablo Sandoval played like one in the World Series. The Giants stretched Gregor Blanco, Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence across the outfield ... hardly an intimidating trio.

They won with Brandon Crawford playing shortstop, Brandon Belt at first base and Marco Scutaro playing out of his mind in the postseason at second base.

If the Cubs can solve their problem at third base, they already have a young core ready to develop out of the infield in shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Add defensive wiz Darwin Barney into the mix from second base and the Cubs have a solid base moving forward.

Where the Cubs' young group is lacking when compared to the champion Giants is in a selfless, disciplined approach at the plate. Rizzo showed he is the most adept at the strategy, driving balls when he can and taking pitches to the opposite field when the opportunity arises.

But as a power hitter, the Cubs can live with Rizzo having some deficiencies in that area if he's going to produce a massive amount of runs. It's Castro that needs to make advancements in the area of plate discipline. With a .380 on-base percentage in September, he showed that he is making the effort, but now it needs to become more second nature and less forced.

In the outfield, Alfonso Soriano isn't expected to be around by the time the Cubs are competitive year in and year out, and the same can probably be said for David DeJesus. But prospects Jorge Soler and Albert Almora provide hope for the future as long as their development doesn't hit a wall.

Brett Jackson has the tools to be a dynamic player, but until his pitch selection improves and he stops giving away multiple at-bats a game he will carry around a ton of unfulfilled potential.

Where the Cubs will have the hardest time copying the Giants blueprint is with the pitching staff. The San Francisco rotation is excellent with Matt Cain leading the way and is off the charts when Tim Lincecum is dealing. Lincecum struggled this past season, but reinvented himself in the bullpen during the postseason.

In that bullpen, the Giants lost closer Brian Wilson and were still a force, especially in the postseason behind setup-man-turned-closer Sergio Romo.

In the Cubs' organization, position-player prospects are far ahead of pitching prospects, with the club trying to work on the problem at the trade deadline this past season. They focused on pitching after taking Almora in the first round of this year's draft and will hit pitching hard again in the 2013 draft.

Although the ideal scenario would be to have the pitching prospects ahead of the hitting group, the Cubs believed they can play catch-up.

"Adding to our young pitching is the No. 1 priority as far as scouting and player development because we do feel pretty god about our position-player group," Epstein said. "After Almora, we took eight straight pitchers in the draft. Every trade we made, we tried to get an arm thrown in the deal.

"It has to catch up. Even when you add major-league pitchers through trade or free agency, if you don't have that strong base of pitching in the minor leagues to support it, it's really hard to have any kind of run of sustained success."

That need to play catch up with the pitching likely will lead the Cubs to take a greater draft focus on college pitching, which will move through the ranks much more quickly than high-school arms.

At 101 losses this past season, the Cubs have their baseline and will work on moving up from there. A 10-to-15-victory improvement would show progress, but the Cubs won't limit themselves in that department.

"The way we'll define our 2013 short-term goals is: Did we get into the postseason and give ourselves a chance to win the World Series?" Epstein said. "That's the immediate goal for any season and if you fall short you fall short, whether it's by five games, 15 games or 30 games.

"How we'll look at 2013 as far as the long-term goal is; How many core pieces have we added? How has our foundation for sustained success evolved? You look back at 2012 through those two lenses as far as the immediate goals of making the playoffs. We missed and missed badly. It was horrible."

Epstein doesn't view 2012 as a completely lost cause, though.

"If you look longer term, at this time last year I looked at the organization and saw one player that was solidly in our core and that was Castro at 22 years old with everything he had accomplished and the ability he had," said Epstein, whose official one-year anniversary in the Cubs organization was Oct. 26.

"Now, 12 months later, we can look and say that Jeff Samardzija has emerged and is solidly in our core going from reliever to potentially impact starting pitcher. Anthony Rizzo now is in our core, somebody that wasn't in the organization at this time last year. I see others that have put themselves in position where with small improvements in their game they can be solidly in our core like Darwin Barney."

There remains a long way to go, though, and certainly nothing that a couple of smart pitching buys on the free-agent market will be able to fix. The Cubs need more starters, they'll eventually need a closer going forward and they'll need a live young arm who has closer potential while working in the setup role.

The road is long, but when the journey ends and that "foundation for sustained success" arrives, it could be well worth it. Just ask the Giants.