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Thursday, February 13, 2014
Updated: February 14, 2:46 PM ET
Keep the faith in New Cubs era

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

What excites you, Cubs fan?

Do updates on minor league prospects get you hot? Do you hide your Baseball America projections under the mattress?

How about profits? Does your team's profitability get you giddy?

Theo Epstein
Theo Epstein and the Cubs front office are hoping their patient approach will pay off.
I'm sure organizational intractability tickles your fancy, right?

It's Year 3 of the New Cubs era, where future performance and fiscal responsibility are the watchwords, and the present is but a way station to the gold-paved road to tomorrow.

What is there to cheer about this season? Well, you're alive, so that's a start. For the older Cubs fans who haunt sports talk radio phone lines, that's a year-by-year contract.

A cynic would argue there is no reason to be excited about this season, this major league season, except that for every day that passes, it's another day closer to that brighter tomorrow that's been packaged and sold.

A cynic would say that. Not me, though.

I'm a realist, so I can write that the major league Cubs are closer to the company softball team for a local real estate concern without any animus.

The Cubs would be better off ditching bats and gloves and donning helmets or slide rules to get to work rebuilding Wrigley Field and constructing that boutique hotel. Can anyone here hang a branding arch over Clark Street?

As we've been told, nothing good can happen at the big-league level until the prospects come up and the video board goes up.

Up, up, up. The Cubs can't get any lower. Maybe that's the prism through which to view the 2014 season. "Can't get worse!"

As a realist, I can acknowledge there are real things to look forward to this season: possible rebound years from Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, the likely arrival of super-prospect Javier Baez, daily Twitter updates on Kris Bryant and Albert Almora in the minors. Umm, other stuff, too. Jeff Samardzija Trade Watch looks promising.

Hey, maybe Junior Lake proves his strong start last year wasn't a fluke. Take that, Keith Law.

One day, the Cubs-rooftops impasse will be over. That'll be cool. A little strange, too. What will the Cubs complain about next? Eh, I'm sure they'll find something.

The state of the Cubs, the big-league Cubs, is limbo.

It's a tough situation for Cubs fans, and assuredly, for the Cubs baseball management team, the players and yes, the business side.

No one cares about the plights of the marketing and ticket departments (sorry, Colin Faulkner), but the business side is under pressure to make money for the team despite having a poor product to sell.

Attendance is down significantly since the Ricketts family took over. The Cubs drew 3.168 million in 2009, coming off a first-place season. Last season, they drew 2.642 million, their worst attendance since 1998. Yes, the home run chase year. It's all about getting fans to buy early, which is why season ticket sales are so important to baseball teams.

The only thing the Cubs have to offer fans is Wrigley Field, the stadium they still haven't started renovating because the Cubs' bigwigs can't negotiate with the rooftop owners to finalize the placement of a very large video board in left-center field.

The city bent over backward to accommodate the Cubs last year -- I know it doesn't fit the narrative some try to push, but it's true -- so I don't know who's to blame for the delay, but since it's the Cubs' problem, blame them. (I'd offer that the rooftop owners are hurting themselves by not pushing through a deal, because once the Cubs can make more money, the product will be better, and they'll be able to sell more $150 game packages to corporations.)

From the moment the Ricketts family started negotiating with Sam Zell, nothing has gotten done easily. Ricketts, and Crane Kenney and his crew, are either really savvy negotiators, or it's just the opposite.

In any event, the baseball side hasn't gotten a big enough budget to add to its farm system and field a legitimate major-market club.

As revolting as the 2012, 101-loss season was, last season was worse, despite a few more victories. That's why they canned Dale Sveum after the last game of the season.

A Cubs official told me Sveum changed from the first season into the second. When I suggested that losing does that to a manager, he agreed. I also think that the lack of talent and the losing has hampered Castro and Rizzo's development. It doesn't help that opposing scouting reports are focused solely on those two. It showed in 2013.

The job was an impossible situation for Sveum to succeed. New manager Rick Renteria has a puncher's chance if the prospects all come up on schedule and all perform to the optimum levels of their ability with no problems adjusting to major league pitching. Because that always happens.

Renteria was brought in because he's great with prospects, always cheerful and he speaks Spanish. That will definitely help Rizzo hit fastballs, right?

"He was universally loved by the players he's had, without enabling them in the slightest degree," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "That's a hard thing to pull off in this game. It makes him a very impactful person in the clubhouse."

Oh wait, that's what Epstein said about Sveum when he hired him. I'm sure all the "baseball man" bromides about Renteria will prove true this time.

Baez
Javier Baez living up to the hype this season would go a long way in accelerating the Cubs' rebuild.
Good vibes or not, the Cubs don't have enough to compete. Their Opening Day payroll, not counting money paid to the Yankees to let Alfonso Soriano hit 35 homers this season, should be around $70 million, or about half of what it was when Ricketts took over.

If only Forbes' rankings determined playoff teams.

There will be a third consecutive summer sell-off, headlined by "ace" pitcher Jeff Samardzija, and including, well, everybody except for Castro, Rizzo, Welington Castillo and the cheap, young talent.

Baez's arrival date will be the most hotly anticipated Cubs debut since Rizzo two years ago. If Darwin Barney can't hit his weight, we'll be looking forward to Arismendy Alcantara coming up. Now that's a name that rolls off the tongue.

In a perfect world, Castro regains his mojo at the plate, Rizzo bounces back from a disappointing first full season, Baez comes up in July with Alcantara, the Oliver Stone outfield ("Platoon") hits enough and the pitching staff treads water. That's good enough for what, 70-something wins? That's something.

But for all my realism, I have faith in the Cubs baseball side and not just because I'm starstruck by Epstein's $30 words.

The guys under Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, starting with farm guru Jason McLeod, are well-rounded, intelligent baseball scouts and analysts, Plus, the near-complete dereliction of the major league club has given the entire department ample time to focus on evaluating young talent. These guys weren't hired to build an instant winner and they weren't given the resources to do so.

But the depth in the organization will be scary in the coming years, if it isn't already.

Soon, the Cubs, the big-league Cubs, will be deep, talented and rich. A World Series can't be promised, but the foundation of sustained success (my favorite Theo-ism) will be laid down.

One day, everything will come together on the North Side and it will be glorious.

A good baseball team at Wrigley Field is a thing to behold, a daily reminder of how baseball can excite a city. It's as close to sports perfection as you can get.

Getting back to that is the goal.

But until then, enjoy Jason Hammel and try the bison dogs. Cubs baseball is back!