- Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer
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This World Series is a tough watch for a Chicago Cubs fan. The rival St. Louis Cardinals continue to show off why they're the most respected organization in the game, while Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer's former team, the Boston Red Sox, is still reaping some rewards from the duo's time in Boston.
Cubs fans must be wondering when that magic is going to start to take place at Wrigley Field.
It's a valid question, and it's become obvious the fan base is split on this issue. Some believe better days are around the corner, while others simply answer that question with "never." If you don't believe better days are ahead for the Cubs then you aren't paying attention or you're just paying attention to their win/loss record. Or maybe you're worried about the managerial search, which hasn't produced any big-name candidates.
I just returned from watching Cubs prospects in the Arizona Fall League, and what I saw in Arizona is more important than whoever they hire to manage.
I saw two prospects, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora, who most baseball observers believe are special. And yes, it's only fall baseball, but would you rather have Cubs prospects prospering wherever they're playing or struggling? Anyway, analyzing two players is too small-picture right now.
You may disagree with their entire rebuilding strategy -- that's another argument -- but if you're on board then you should be very pleased with 2013. Forget the record 50 home losses. Forget the putrid play for long stretches. Forget the record number of players they used on their roster for the second consecutive season. It's all by design.
The Cubs' front office is taking every advantage of the fact they aren't beholden to a win/loss record. At least not yet. It's the reason they have an advantage over many other clubs. There is no quest to sell more tickets or get to .500 or make a marketing splash. The Cubs are grinding out the process of restocking their organization with prospects while developing the ones they have. Of course not every prospect will pan out, but the more they acquire the greater the chance more will. That's simple math.
Yes, the seasons that some core players had were below expectations. But that can be a good thing if players such as Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo learn from their failures and end up better for it when the Cubs turn the corner. Even the 21-year-old Bryant said the magic phrase that can apply to Cubs fans who have followed the team for years, as well: Failure followed by succeeding makes it that much more special. It's why many predict Chicago will have to shut down for days on end if the Cubs ever win the World Series. No team has failed for so long and been so bad without winning. It will be special if it ever happens.
Maybe we'll be fooled by Castro's finish and maybe next year Rizzo's batting average will rise while his power disappears. It's baseball, so no one knows. But the more likely scenario for both players is they get better, or in Castro's case he simply returns to the form that made him a two-time All-Star. He's getting back to being that player now and it's not a stretch to believe former manager Dale Sveum was fired, in part, for his handling of Castro.
Pitcher Travis Wood and catcher Welington Castillo have moved into the core group while Jeff Samardzija hasn't fallen out, but he needs to take another step. So that core is starting to expand. The first minor leaguer of any significance to come up in the Epstein era, Junior Lake, has shown flashes he can be a player.
The real news for the Cubs is happening down on the farm. Shortstop Javier Baez, the Cubs' first-round pick in 2011, had a memorable minor league season with 37 home runs between Class A and Double-A. This year's first-rounder, Bryant, has hit everywhere he's been in his short time with the Cubs. Three pitchers they acquired midseason -- C.J. Edwards, Corey Black and Ivan Pineyro -- combined to throw four shutouts in six playoff games for Class A Daytona.
Of course, it's the minor leagues and so those results don't have as much weight but isn't success better than failure, no matter where it is? It's highly doubtful we would call it meaningless if these players failed at the lower levels. The fact they had success has to have some meaning.
This was a year in which the Cubs finally rid themselves of Alfonso Soriano and they flipped pitchers Matt Garza and Scott Feldman for talent which scouts agree is high end. Feldman is a great example of how the Cubs are operating for the long term.
He was a minor offseason signing coming from the Texas Rangers. On the surface, his 2012 numbers weren't impressive but under closer scrutiny he was a perfect candidate for a bounce-back season as he changed leagues. After a shaky spring the Cubs' front office was proven right as Feldman pitched his way on to the trade market.
The deal they made with the Baltimore Orioles might go down as one of the best in recent memory. Pedro Strop has a tremendous arm, whether he ends up being a setup man or a closer. That alone may have been worth the deal for Feldman, but the Cubs also got starter Jake Arrieta, who could be a dominant pitcher for a long time. He said several times he needed a change of scenery and now that he has one, the Cubs could stand to reap the rewards.
The signing of Feldman and his subsequent trade never happen if the Cubs are concerned with other things besides the longer-term health of the organization. If the Cubs wanted to win a few more games they could have held onto Feldman until closer to the trade deadline but they took advantage of the situation and dealt him early -- and it netted them two very good arms.
This kind of strategy is being used in all aspects of the team. If the Cubs can be 1 percent better because of a move that might be detrimental to their current win/loss record, they're going to make the move. Fans should be applauding this, not deriding it. If .500 was the goal then Feldman, Soriano and Garza are still on this team. Then where are the Cubs in the coming years? Those players aren't long-term answers -- not even Garza.
The Cubs have been honest about all this, never promising a timeline nor a win total because there is inherent unpredictability in baseball, especially in rebuilding a team. And Epstein was quite honest -- and surprised reporters with his answer -- when asked about the drop in attendance at the end of the season. He took the 2.6 million that paid for tickets as a positive, not the other way around.
"You can look at it both ways," Epstein said. "We've traded 40 percent of our rotation two years in a row now and 2.6 million showed up to watch us play."
There are no guarantees. Scouting and developing are key right now. The free agents will come when the Cubs clearly have a need for a specific position or player. Would you be happy if Albert Pujols or Josh Hamilton were clogging things up right now? Free agency isn't the way to build a team and signing older free agents is hardly a formula for sustained success. The only issue the Cubs are probably having internal discussions about is leaving these young players to fend for themselves in a pressure cooker of a situation in Chicago.
That's where a veteran or two can come in handy but not at the expense of the plan. In fact, a case can be made that the Cubs are on the verge of a real youth movement at Wrigley Field, and so the numbers alone will take care of themselves. Think about Chicago Blackhawks players Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Besides being very talented, the best thing to happen to them was joining the Hawks at the same time. If Rizzo, Castro, Baez, Bryant, etc. are together, they can lean on each other. The pressure is spread around.
There have been missteps along the way. Acquiring and re-signing Ian Stewart was a mistake and spending big money on Edwin Jackson might turn out to be, as well. And then there was the hiring of Sveum. So there will bumps along the way, but that's the case for any organization. It's a smart move to recognize the need for Latin-American coaches as they are doing in their search for a manager, so the Cubs are addressing mistakes one by one.
Baez and Bryant are close. And Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler is still a major talent who needs to stay healthy while a now healthy Almora is again proving why he's considered a top prospect. All are moving up next year. Pitching is still a question mark. The Cubs have a few on the horizon but they're going to need even more to make their way through the Cubs' system. And they need Samardijza, Jackson and even Wood to be better. And Arrieta has to take the next step.
The Cubs are much better off now than they were a year ago. Prospects abound and soon enough they will make their way to Wrigley Field. The secret to their success will be taking full advantage of the losing. Think about it. The Cubs have been losers for most of the past century but never took advantage of it. They simply wallowed in it.
The great thing about sports is we get answers. We'll know soon if this plan made sense because flipping veterans for prospects is almost over, letting good/sensible free agents sign with other teams is almost over and not worrying about the win/loss record is almost over.
The next phase is close, which means Epstein's infamous words after firing Sveum will be put to the test.
"The Cubs are coming," he said. "And coming fast."
He believes it. Do you?
10hAnthony Witrado, Special to ESPN.com
16hAnthony Witrado, Special to ESPN.com