- Doug Padilla, Chicago White Sox beat reporter
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CHICAGO -- Now that the hard part is finished, it's time to put the Chicago Cubs' new management on the clock.
The first year of a from-the-ground-up rebuilding project is never easy. The 2012 season was the equivalent of living in your home while the inside is being gutted for an entire remodel. There were messes to step over, unsightly things to look away from and the uncomfortable feeling that it's taking longer than expected.
Now that most of the demolition phase is complete, how long will it actually take to see the Cubs in contention again?
Cubs president Theo Epstein talked at length Thursday of the rough season that just ended and the road that lies ahead. He has continued to avoid putting an exact timetable on when he expects the Cubs to be a winner again, but was asked if there is an expectation the club should be pushing contention by the second half of the 2014 season.
"I haven't considered 2014 or any specific year," Epstein said. "I just know that we have to continue to push the organization forward. I'll say this: I'd be incredibly disappointed if our baseball operation, as a whole, is not much, much healthier by then and is in a position where we can see what contention is going to look like here. In other words, where our core of young players is getting to a point where it's well defined.
"And I don't know what that timetable is going to be and how quickly they're going to develop, what moves we make, whether it's then, whether it's earlier than then, whether it's later than then, but I would hope that we would have some real definition to our core of young players and then seeking out to really compliment it and winning some ballgames."
If 2012 was the demolition phase then 2013 is when the remodel starts to take shape. It will be more tangible during the next stage, but it will still be a construction zone.
That means another season of struggles lies ahead, while a loyal fan base is once again asked to hang in there. While Cubs fans have passed on their season tickets to each generation they have also handed over healthy doses of patience.
Epstein and Co. don't want to take advantage of that loyalty but they will have to lean on it a little bit longer. A break on ticket prices might help to digest it all a little better, but it doesn't sound like that is in the near future.
"There's no getting around the fact that as far as the ultimate return investment for the fans' dollar (it's) seeing a winning team," Epstein said. "They're going to get better value a little bit down the road than they are getting now. It's our job to make sure they get that value and that the experience of watching a baseball team down the stretch and into October and celebrating with that team is priceless. And that's ultimately how we can reward the fans' support."
For now, the takeaway for the 2.88 million fans that streamed into the gates this season is the emergence of Anthony Rizzo, the strides made by Starlin Castro, the improvements on defense from Darwin Barney and the rebirth of Jeff Samardzija as a starter.
If the club struggles to reach .500 next season, there at least needs to be more strides being made. If it doesn't come from new faces and/or long winning streaks then it most certainly has to be in somebody flashing MVP or Cy Young credentials.
Epstein might not want to put a date on when this investment comes to maturity, but if the Cubs aren't pushing the division leaders by the following year, asking for more patience will be the boldest move he has made. Living in a construction zone isn't something people will volunteer to do for long.
"The only way we can thread that needle, so to speak, is by being transparent, and that means not selling a bill of goods," Epstein said. "I'm not going to sit here and say, ‘Don't worry about 101 losses because we have a magic plan to win a World Series in 2013; it's gonna happen, so be there now.' That's not the case.
"I think we're trying to communicate that there is a plan, there is a vision. It might be a little bit longer-term than we all want it to be, but that we're committed to it, and that there's a great reward at the end. We can't guarantee results, but I can tell everybody that we're not gonna be satisfied until we're in the postseason year-in and year-out, and we're in contention every year."
Digging out of a 101-loss hole won't be easy without pitching and Epstein admitted that the position-player side of the farm system is more settled than the pitching side. It's why the club is willing to add free-agent arms this winter, but it doesn't figure to be the top-flight talent just yet.
Epstein and Hoyer have their plan, but they also know there are a whole lot of people peeking over their shoulder.
"It's our obligation to maintain the discipline that is necessary to accomplish (our) vision," Epstein said. "We owe the fans a tremendous amount of hard work to get there. We have to be tireless in our pursuit to get there, because maybe we'll get there a year earlier if we work harder than our competition.
"We have to do our best to win every single game at the major league level as we go forward, put forth a winning effort for the fans. They deserve that because they're committing to us, too, with 2.88 million fans coming out to see a product that wasn't that great this year. If we don't give full effort, that's disrespectful to the fans who showed their money."
Here's what we do know about the Epstein regime: Their demolition skills are impressive. We'll soon know if they have a flair for construction like there was in Boston during the World Series years.
"If we don't stay committed to (our) vision, I think that's disrespectful to the fans as well, because we've made a covenant with them that we're going somewhere and that by buying tickets and showing tremendous support, as they have, they're buying in and they're a part of that covenant," Epstein said.
"We need to reward them ultimately, and it's going to take a lot of hard work along the way. Is patience required? Absolutely. And it's not easy for me to be patient, either. I guess I'm paid to maintain a lot of that discipline and patience as well."