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Cubs merit optimism, but playoffs in 2015 still a longshot

Optimism was the key word emerging from the Chicago Cubs locker room as the offseason began, 106 years since their last championship.

But optimism alone won't end that title drought. It's going to take a lot of hard work and, yes, some more patience.

"We expect to win," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said before the Cubs' last game of the season on Sunday. "I don't want any fan to be complacent with us not winning next year and going to the postseason."

It's the right attitude to take for anyone in uniform. But everyone else, along with the front office, needs to be realistic. The main reasons the Cubs still have a long way to go? Age and inexperience.

The Cubs were the youngest team in the majors. At season's end, their roster averaged 27 years, 50 days. They're bound to stay about that young in 2015. They might add a veteran or two, but the eventual addition of Kris Bryant, among others, will keep the age and experience down.

Take Rizzo as an example.

"I think the biggest thing I learned last year was going through a full season," said Rizzo, who struggled with a .233 batting average in 2013. "That was my first time going through a full season at any level."

Just think how many key players haven't gone through that full season yet. Players such as Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Jorge Soler and Kyle Hendricks don't know what that 162-game grind at the majors is all about. They got a taste, which should help greatly, but there's much more to learn. Doing it for 162 games might be the hardest grind in sports. Only one member of the Cubs' end-of-the-year rotation, Travis Wood, has thrown 200 innings in a season in the big leagues, and it took him until the final game of the season to do it in 2013. Maybe that changes this winter.

Here's another tangible reason the Cubs have a long hill to climb: They finished dead last in the National League in on-base percentage with a .303 mark.

That's not what a Theo Epstein offense has looked like at its best. That's not to say the Cubs should rid themselves of their homer-hitting, high-strikeout players; it just means they'll need to do better than last.

Five of the top eight on-base percentage teams in the NL made the playoffs this season. The Cubs need to jump into that group. A good on-base percentage is still the doorway to a potent offense.

"As an organization, we all feel some momentum going into the offseason," Rizzo said. "That's what we need. Not only the players, but the front office, as well."

This isn't to put a damper on the excitement for Cubs fans. Almost like the previous season, 2014 probably went better than planned ... you know, other than those 89 losses.

It was a relatively healthy season as injuries go, and just about every prospect expected to make it to the majors saw action at Wrigley Field. Success wasn't necessarily the point; experience was. And players such as Rizzo and Starlin Castro re-established themselves as cornerstone players. That was huge.

But nothing has changed in terms of the Cubs' rebuilding plans.

A reminder: Next season will be Phase 2, Year 2. That doesn't sound sexy, but anyone associated with the team will tell you there are no shortcuts.

Phase 1 consisted of two years of trading away older veterans with hefty contracts and restocking the farm system. Mission accomplished. See Hendricks, Neil Ramirez, Bryant and plenty of others for proof.

Phase 2 also is a two-year plan, this time of development.

This year consisted of new players getting their feet wet. Next season consists of those guys getting more settled while a few new ones make their debuts. A jump to the playoffs isn't realistic, no matter whom they bring in to help.

Yes, it's possible for them to "change the narrative," as Epstein likes to say, but winning over six months takes a lot more than a nice storyline. It takes many special performances. The Cubs aren't quite ready.

"It's going to be nice for them to see what happened," Rizzo said of the rookies. "It's not always easy to make midseason adjustments. When they can finally get that weight off their shoulders and see what happened, it will be nice."

That kind of introspection doesn't come with a playoff-ready team. It comes with a developing one. Again, it doesn't mean Cubs manager Rick Renteria shouldn't shoot for the stars. After all, he'll have a shiny new toy to play with when 2013 first-round pick Bryant is called up. He could be a franchise-changing player.

"The message is going to be, 'We're playing to win next year,'" Renteria said. "Why wouldn't anyone want goals to have success in the coming years? I'm laying extremely high expectations."

That's what any manager would say, no matter what his roster looks like. It's not impossible for the Cubs to get off to a good start next season and ride a wave; it's just improbable. But one of these years, that winning tone the manager sets will take hold. That's when Phase 3 begins.

"It's a long process to get there," Rizzo said. "You respect every team that's celebrating. Every game counts. It's every day for 162. It's a mindset. You have to gear your sights and thoughts for the right things."

The Cubs are one step closer. They're down to perhaps one more year, at which point we can start to dissect the path to the postseason. Even then, the Cubs will not have reached their peak, but they will finally be in a position to do so -- as long as the talent they've assembled is for real.

"There's always optimism, and now you can see it everywhere," Rizzo said.