CHICAGO (AP) — As they enter Year Two under Theo Epstein's management regime, the Chicago Cubs insist the pieces are falling into place and that they're poised to make a jump.
Never mind all the talk about the long haul. They believe the rebuilding process is in high gear.
"I think we can challenge for the division and compete with anyone," slugger Anthony Rizzo said.
That's a big statement considering the Cubs are coming off a 101-loss season and the focus still remains more on the future as they try to end a championship drought that dates to 1908. They've been busy overhauling the roster and beefing up the infrastructure ever since Epstein took over as president of baseball operations before last season, hoping to build a foundation to contend on a yearly basis.
They see new facilities in the Dominican Republic and in their spring home of Mesa, Ariz., along with a commitment to developing the minor league system — not to mention renovations to Wrigley Field that they're trying to get approved — paying big dividends down the road.
They believe they will cash in on top prospects such as shortstop Javier Baez and Jorge Soler at some point, too. But while keeping their eyes on the future, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer made it clear they're looking for improvement now.
They don't want to relive last season, when the Cubs parted with high-priced veterans such as Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Dempster on the way to a fifth-place finish in the NL League Central. After watching Chicago drop 100 games for the first time since 1966 and the third time in franchise history, management veered slightly from its course and dug into the wallets a bit.
Besides bringing in low-priced players they hoped would contribute, the Cubs made a big play for starter Anibal Sanchez. When he re-signed with Detroit, they brought in Edwin Jackson on a four-year, $52 million deal, adding a pitcher they believe will still be a contributor when they're ready to make a big run in a few years.
That's assuming it doesn't come sooner.
"We've put ourselves in position to succeed," said manager Dale Sveum, in his second season. "We have enough starting pitching and we have a solid bullpen. And, if you look at offenses on playoff teams, most guys had a career year or at least lived up to their media guide. That's what you need to have to score consistent runs and compete."
The Cubs believe they have enough arms with Jeff Samardzija, Jackson and Matt Garza leading the rotation. They also have a young All-Star shortstop in Starlin Castro and Gold Glove second baseman in Darwin Barney.
Rizzo showed promise, too, batting .285 with 15 homers and 48 RBIs in just 87 games last season.
"If he gets 500-600 plate appearances, he's going to put up numbers worthy of being in the middle of the lineup," Sveum said. "That doesn't necessarily mean we he needs to hit a ton of home runs. We want RBI guys, and Anthony can be a good one. He did a great job of hitting in clutch situations, and we want him to continue that."
But there are some issues lingering over this team.
Garza is expected to be sidelined until early to mid-May because of a strained left lat, a blow to the Cubs on two fronts. Besides being a top starter, he's also one of their most valuable trade pieces.
Alfonso Soriano's name remains a regular on the trade rumor mill and figures to stay there unless he gets dealt.
Then, there's Carlos Marmol. It's fair to say his status as the closer is shaky, considering the trade with the Los Angeles for Dan Haren that fell through and the arrival of Kyuji Fujikawa from Japan.
"We can win a lot more games than we did last year," said Marmol, who finished with 20 saves in 23 chances but also walked 45 in 55 1-3 innings last season. "Last season was such a grind for everyone, but there's a lot of positivity in the clubhouse. We're making progress. We're taking steps in the right direction. We believe in each other."