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Epstein: Cubs moving in the right direction

President of baseball operations touts talent in system, progress being made

MESA, Ariz. -- When Theo Epstein first agreed to talk to Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts in the fall of 2011, he knew he would be facing a huge challenge if he left the Red Sox to join the Cubs. But he had a plan to build an organization from the ground floor up, and as he heads toward his third season in Chicago, he remains a believer in the plan and swears that there is light at the end of the tunnel, not the familiar freight train.

Yet the Cubs' president of baseball operations knows only the team's most optimistic fans join him in celebrating the Daytona Cubs' 2013 Florida State League championship. Epstein's personal honeymoon period with fans might be over after 101- and 96-loss seasons at Wrigley Field, but he is convinced they'll view things differently once Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and other prospects start laying the organization's long-term foundation.

Epstein says there is "a tremendous amount of talent'' in the Cubs' system.

"We believe the Cubs are a special organization, that we're all going to be part of building something special,'' he said. "We're all here because we think we're part of something special.'' Where do you see the organization now as opposed to this time two years ago?

Epstein: I think we've made tremendous progress. … The prospects we have have gotten a lot of attention, and they're moving up the ladder. They're exciting, potential impact players. But just the general talent level, the organizational depth, is improving. We just went over all the (bullpen) arms we have in camp. There's no comparison between the quality of the arms now (and in 2012), the candidates to make the team and the depth behind them in Iowa. The people we have in place in this organization -- coaches, scouts -- I believe are impact people. I believe in the processes we have in place. It takes time to turn an organization around. It takes time to build impact talent and the requisite depth, but it's happening.

People in the organization really believe we're on the verge of something special. We understand that we're perceived otherwise, and that's our fault. We've been a last-place club the last couple of years. We're not protesting (the perception), but we have to earn our way into a point where we're championship contenders on an annual basis, and we think we're certainly moving in that direction. What role will new manager Rick Renteria play?

Epstein: Ultimately to win, be the steward of a winning club, championship clubs. Obviously it's a process. We really trust Ricky to connect with players as human beings, to be on their side, to be consistent, to hold them to high standards and ultimately to get the most out of them. He's a great baseball guy, a great communicator. He's fully invested in what we're doing here. He believes in young players, that you can win with young players. I think he's the right guy to create the environment we need at the big league level, to establish a winning culture. How significant is it to have a new Spring Training complex and a new academy in the Dominican Republic?

Epstein: The Dominican academy was a nice investment that has paid dividends for us with the edge it has given us signing some young Latin players over the last couple of years. The city of Mesa certainly stepped up for us, allowed us to continue this partnership and gave us a state-of-the-art facility that will also be a competitive advantage for us over the long run. Our players feel they have the best (Spring Training) facility in the business, and it can't help but raise your level of engagement, your work ethic. Walking around, everyone agrees that if you can't get better here, you can't get better anywhere. To have two out of our three facilities to be world class, certainly means a lot. We hope in coming years to finish it off and get the most important one done (in completing the renovation of Wrigley Field). Most of your top prospects are position players. How do you view the pitching?

Epstein: Our arms are probably a little bit underrated. That said, we need probably twice as many as we have now. I think we've done a nice job through the last couple of Drafts, especially through some trades, of adding to that reserve, but we need to do a lot more. We're going to continue to draft primarily arms going forward; maybe not with the first pick (fourth overall). We'll see how that shakes out, but we're going to keep hitting that (pitching priority).

(But) look at our high-A rotation last year. It started out with a lot of organization guys, not a ton of prospects, and by the end of the year, you had Pierce Johnson, a sandwich pick in the 2012 Draft; C.J. Edwards, (who) we acquired in the (Matt) Garza trade; Ivan Pineyro, (who) we acquired in the (Scott) Hairston trade; and Corey Black, (who) we acquired in the (Alfonso) Soriano trade. That rotation didn't allow an earned run in the postseason and carried Daytona to a Florida State League championship. Pretty much that whole rotation will be at Double-A (Tennessee) this year. That shows the difference in pitching talent from last year to now, which bodes well, but the job clearly has not been finished with respect to our pitching talent and depth. Is it hard to stay patient?

Epstein: We're all competitive. So you show up for the first day of Spring Training wanting to win. You don't ever plan on anything but grinding your way into contention, into a postseason opportunity. That's what's on your mind day in and day out when you come to the park. But in the front office, you have to also remove yourself from that and look at the big picture, how things evolve over course of several years, five years -- what the payroll and roster is going to look like long term. Being patient isn't hard, but it's not fun.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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