How Long Does Theo Epstein Have to Rebuild Before Cubs Fans Grow Restless?

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How Long Does Theo Epstein Have to Rebuild Before Cubs Fans Grow Restless?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took the reins to the Chicago front office last offseason, they were immediately hailed as the saviors that would bring a World Series title to the long-suffering Cubs franchise and it's fans.

As expected, they set to work immediately dismantling the disaster of a team they had inherited, and as a result, the Cubs lost 101 games last season, the most since they dropped 103 games in 1966.

The 2013 season will likely be more of the same, as the new front office rebuilds the organization from the ground up. Their goal being to set the team up not just for a postseason run in the near future, but for sustained success on a long-term scale.

There will no doubt be those narrow-minded fans who see another potential 100-loss season and wonder what all the hubbub was surrounding Epstein to being with, but for the educated fan, it's one step back to take two steps forward.

Now the question becomes, how long before that educated fan gets sick of waiting until next year and wants to see some on-field results? How long does Epstein have to rebuild the Cubs into a contender before things go south on the North Side?

 

Current Building Blocks

Epstein has spoken often about adding to the team's core, and the team enters the 2013 season with three legitimate core players to build around long-term.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

First off we have Starlin Castro, the 23-year-old shortstop who has quickly become the face of the Cubs' franchise while making back-to-back All-Star appearances.

A supreme talent who is well ahead of the curve and plays a premium position, the Cubs wisely locked Castro up with a seven-year, $60 million extension last August that will keep him in Chicago through 2019.

He is still maturing as a hitter, but figures to top out as a perennial .300 hitter and 20/20 threat. He also took a step forward defensively last season and appears as though he'll be a plus defender down the road.

Then there is first baseman Anthony Rizzo, whom the Cubs acquired from the Padres last offseason for hard-throwing right-hander Andrew Cashner.

It's still early, but it certainly looks like the Cubs got the better end of that deal, and it could very well go down as the first major step toward contention of the Epstein era.

After posting a 1.101 OPS with 23 home runs in 70 games at Triple-A to open the 2012 season, Rizzo made his Cubs debut on June 26 and was the everyday first baseman from there on.

He wound up hitting 15 home runs with a .805 OPS in 87 games at the big league level, and he enters the 2013 season as one of the league's top breakout candidates.

He's a future anchor in the middle of the Cubs lineup and seemingly a lock to be a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy year-in and year-out.

Finally we have right-hander Jeff Samardzija, the former All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame who was lured away from a career in football with a massive signing bonus.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Expected to be a tough sign, Samardzija fell to the fifth round of the 2006 draft, where the Cubs scooped him up and convinced him to give up football with a $7.25 million signing bonus.

He made his debut in 2008, appearing in 26 games out of the bullpen and helping the team earn a postseason berth as a key setup man.

However, he then spent the next three seasons bouncing between Triple-A and the majors before settling in as the team's top setup man in 2011 and posting a 2.97 ERA with 8.9 K/9 over 75 appearances.

He was handed a rotation spot out of camp last season in what was viewed as a make-or-break year for his hopes of being part of the rotation, and he wound up being the team's best pitcher.

Though he went just 9-13, he had a 3.81 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 174.2 innings of work.

The hope is that he can build off that this season and solidify himself as the ace of the staff long-term, and so far so good after he threw eight shutout innings and struck out nine on Opening Day.

 

High-End Minor League Talent

The Cubs' farm system is incredibly thin on pitching, to the point that there is no real prospect of note, though Arodys Vizcaino and Pierce Johnson appear to have a good chance to be solid big leaguers and Dillon Maples still has a ton of upside.

However, what they do have is a trio of position prospects who all have a chance to be superstars at the next level.

Shortstop Javier Baez has perhaps the best bat speed of any prospect in all of the minors. He was taken with the No. 9 pick in the 2011 draft, and he turned in a better-than-expected first pro season.

Over 80 games between Single-A and High-A, he hit .294/.346/.543 with 16 home runs and 24 RBI, and the 20-year-old will open the 2013 season in Double-A.

He'll likely have to shift to third base at some point, but his bat will play anywhere, and he has the potential to be a serious power threat.

Center fielder Albert Almora was the team's first-round pick last year, and while he was taken out of high school, he's a polished player and should move quicker than most high school bats.

The Cubs selected him as much for his five-tool skill set as they did for his contagious work ethic and natural leadership skills, and he is the type of player who could make intangible contributions to the team aside from his on-field production.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
OF Jorge Soler

Then there is Jorge Soler, the Cuban defector who inked a nine-year, $30 million contract with the Cubs last June.

The 21-year-old has the raw power scouts drool over, and he showed an advanced approach in his pro debut last year with a .299/.369/.463 line and five home runs over 134 at-bats.

He may be brought along a bit more slowly than the other two guys, but he is the type of player who could turn raw talent into production out of nowhere and shoot through the system.

Guys like Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Matt Szczur, Christian Villanueva, Dan Vogelbach are all solid prospects in their own right, but they are far from sure things to be big league regulars at this point.

As of now, the expectation is that Baez will push for a starting job in 2014, while Soler and Almora could join the team the following year.

Important as their current crop of minor league talent is, what the team does moving forward to improve the organizational depth is just as important.

Rough as their 101-loss season was last year, it netted them the No. 2 pick in the upcoming draft, and they should have a chance to add the high-ceiling starting pitching prospect the organization is sorely lacking.

More trades at the deadline, namely moving Matt Garza, could also bring the team a solid prospect or two, so there is plenty of reason to think there will be more young, high-end talent in the system at this time next year.

 

So When Do They Make Their Move?

To this point, Epstein has yet to make a splash in free agency, instead opting to add middling veterans to fill out the roster and to serve as potential trade chips at the deadline.

Edwin Jackson has been the lone exception, as he signed a four-year, $52 million deal this winter and gives the Cubs a durable veteran starter.

Looking ahead, the team will be out from under the $18 million annual salary of Alfonso Soriano after the 2014 season, and many of the veteran pieces they've stockpiled will be gone by then as well.

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In fact, the offseason following the 2014 season appears to be a reasonable guess as to when the team will make their move.

With money coming off the books and the team's top prospects expected to be knocking on the door, that could be the winter the team moves aggressively in free agency to add a high-priced impact player or two for a serious postseason push.

Even if they do that, there will no doubt be some growing pains with so many young guys, but expecting the team to have a shot at contention in 2015 seems realistic, and things should only get better from there.

So for the next two seasons, let's cut Epstein some slack and let the man work. The on-field product likely won't be pretty, but for once, looking ahead to next year could have some legitimate merit.

With 104 years of futility in the books, what's another two years if it means a chance at being a perennial contender? That said, if things aren't genuinely looking up for the franchise come 2015, Epstein will have his work cut out for him keeping the city on his side.

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