When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over the Cubs in the fall of 2011, the magnitude of the task in front of them was almost a blessing. A club in steep decline would not be fixed overnight, and that was not what the new regime had been brought in to do, anyway.
What would have been hard to foresee was that just 15 months later, there are already signs of short-term light, never mind long-term life, at Wrigley Field. The Cubs likely won't be a winning club in 2013, but they could well be one of the most improved teams in the Majors.
A series of upgrades to their starting rotation has solidified an area of major need, and turned a 101-loss team into one that could push .500. And they've accomplished that while continuing to tend to the most essential job: building the talent core for the next legitimately good Cubs team.
"It's a line we're committed to walking," said Hoyer, the Cubs' general manager. "Our goal here is to build a consistently good team ... and hopefully a team that wins a championship. In order to do that, we're not going to sacrifice the future now for wins. But at the same time, every season is precious, and you never know when that team might catch lightning in a bottle. You never want to sacrifice that season entirely."
So they've shrewdly amassed pieces. Scott Baker and Scott Feldman signed one-year deals, providing low-cost quality to the back of a rotation that needed it. Carlos Villanueva reportedly agreed to a two-year deal and could turn out to be one of the winter's better bargains.
And they've now announced a four-year deal with Edwin Jackson, securing innings in bulk from a pitcher who is consistently effective and sometimes brilliant. They've done it all while keeping plenty of financial flexibility, too. Assuming that Jackson's deal is not too heavily front- or back-loaded, the Cubs will have two eight-figure commitments in 2014, and only Jackson at that level in 2015.
Jackson will slot in alongside Jeff Samardzija behind Matt Garza at the front of the rotation, assuming Garza is not traded. Feldman, Villanueva, Baker (if healthy) would then be among the candidates to fill out the rest of the starting five. That may not be a pennant-winning rotation, but it should represent a massive upgrade over a group that finished 14th in the NL in starters' ERA in 2012.
They're doing this the right way. Many teams have been tripped up by trying to chase 80 or 85 wins, losing sight of the fact that the real goal is 90 or more. The Cubs are trying to build a championship-winning team, while also remaining competitive along the way. It's a fine line, but they seem to be walking it wisely.
Despite that 101-loss season last year, the Cubs are only four seasons removed from posting the National League's best record. Fans know it's possible to build a winner at Clark and Addison. They're smart enough to know that it takes time, but passionate enough that they don't want to sit through another last-place season if they don't have to.
That's the challenge for the front office of a rebuilding team -- to keep bringing in talent for the next contending team while also putting a competitive team on the field in the short term. All while making sure not to block that rising talent with unnecessary commitments to players who won't have value in two or three years.
In all of these regards, the Cubs are thriving. They missed out on a chance to deal Garza last summer when Garza got hurt, but they've turned other veteran assets into young talent. They spent to acquire Jorge Soler in the international market. They had four of the first 67 picks in last June's Draft. And, again, it appears they've built a much more viable 2013 club while they were at it.
"We just weren't deep enough [in 2012]," Hoyer said. "That's been our biggest focus, especially pitching-wise. We just [didn't] have the pitching depth in the system to withstand injuries, and we've worked hard to build a pitching staff where we feel like we have some depth."
The next task is to revitalize an offense that also struggled. But in that case, there are intriguing pieces. Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson are highly rated prospects, and more are on the way. The Cubs' farm system is in the top half of Minor League organizations, and rising. Hoyer notes a desire to inculcate a selective approach in Cubs hitters, leading to greater on-base percentages (and as a result, more power too).
There's a plan here. Actually, multiple plans: short-term and long. The Nationals are their model, and it makes sense. Washington parlayed superb drafts, trades for young talent and the occasional big free-agent signing into a club that appears to be one of the beasts of the National League entering 2013.
"We know we can't transform this organization in one year, so every year we should be able to stop and look and say we have a lot more assets, a lot more talent than we had before," Hoyer said.
"We just have to keep on adding to it. There's plenty of examples of teams that have done a good job of that, the Nationals being the clearest. It wasn't a gradual, five-wins-per-year improvement. They struggled, they had a decent season in 2011 and they exploded in 2012. That's probably the model more than anything. At some point you get a critical mass where you become a talented team."
It probably won't be this year. But they're getting closer, and it may not be long.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.