Cactus League countdown: Chicago Cubs

Epstein appears to have convinced Cubs fans to wisdom of slow, steady rebuilding approach.

For a fan base saddled with a 105-year World Series drought, Cubs fans seem to be showing remarkable patience with the organization's slow rebuilding process under Theo Epstein, which enters its second year.

Year One of the Epstein regime resulted in a 101-loss campaign, but Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have resisted the temptation to go for instant fixes while trying to assure fans that their patience will be rewarded.

Epstein, the so-called boy wonder, came over from the Boston Red Sox with two World Series rings and a master plan to rebuild the Cubs for the long haul.

Epstein did demonstrate a willingness to break out the checkbook, hoping to land free agent starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez. The deal was reportedly done, only for the Tigers to swoop in at the last minute and outbid the Cubs. Still, it was a good sign for Cubs fans that their team was willing to spend.

The Cubs did not stop at Sanchez. Two weeks later, they landed Edwin Jackson, a pitcher whose overall credentials, it could be argued, are the equal of or better than Sanchez's, at a lower cost. Jackson's four-year, $52 million deal is the largest given out since the Ricketts family purchased the team.
Jackson and Sanchez both will be 29 years old on Opening Day and have pitched comparable innings the past two seasons. Jackson, though, has more postseason experience, an All-Star appearance and a no-hitter to his name.

His addition gives the Cubs a solid front three in their starting rotation, along with Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija. That's a big step in the team's building process, but there is still much more to be done -- as should be expected for a team that lost 101 games. Three other free-agents will be in the mix to fill out the rest of the rotation: Scott Baker, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva.

The Cubs didn't add much offensively -- the most notable signings being outfielders Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston, who seem likely to platoon in right field. They also added backup catcher Dioner Navarro.

For offense, the Cubs will count the continued development of rising stars Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, who's now a two-time all-star. Veteran outfielder Alfonso Soriano had a strong offensive campaign in 2012 and will try to duplicate that at 37 years old, although he's hardly part of the future and remains a trade candidate. The Cubs continue to hold out hope that third baseman Ian Stewart can stay healthy and improve on a dismal 2012 season in which he played just 55 games.

Expectations for 2013 remain low. Perhaps not 101-losses low, but a playoff appearance seems unlikely.

Regardless, Cubs fans always show up for Cactus League. Between snowbirds living in the Valley, Illinois transplants and Chicagoans escaping the winter cold, the seats and lawn at HoHoKam Park always fill up. This spring, it will be for the last time. When 2014 rolls around, the team will move into a new facility a couple miles to the west. This spring offers Cubs fans one last chance to soak in the sights and sounds of the park the team has called home since 1979.

Cactus League play gives those fans a chance to get a look at new reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, who signed from Japan this offseason. The team has said Carlos Marmol is still the closer, but Fujikawa could take over the role quickly if Marmol remains inconsistent.

While this year seems to offer little chance of contending, long-suffering Cubs fans can hold out hope that the Cubs are moving in that direction, albeit slowly and deliberately.

Who’s new:
P Scott Baker, OF Scott Hairston, P Kyuji Fujikawa, P Scott Feldman, P Edwin Jackson, C Dioner Navarro, OF Nate Schierholtz, P Carlos Villanueva, free agents; OF Brian Bogusevic, SS Alberto Gonzalez, IF-OF Brent Lillibridge, OF Darnell McDonald, RP Hisanori Takahashi, P Cory Wade, P Dontrelle Willis, minor-league free agents.

Who’s gone:
P Jairo Ascenscio (Brewers), P Manny Corpas (Rockies), 2B Blake DeWitt (Braves), P Justin Germano (Blue Jays), 1B Bryan LaHair (Japan), P Rodrigo Lopez (Phillies), OF Joe Mather (Phillies), P Randy Wells (Rangers); IF Adrian Cardenas, free agent.
Battle grounds:
New outfielders Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz figure to split time in right field unless one runs away with the job during camp. … Ian Stewart returns from an injury-plagued season as the likely third baseman, but Luis Valbuena could challenge him for the job, and 23-year-old prospect Josh Vitters will try to show he's ready for a big league job. … The final two rotation spots should come down to some combination of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva. … Catcher Dioner Navarro was signed to back up Wellington Castillo, but Steve Clevenger could take the backup job with a strong camp.
Health watch: Third baseman Ian Stewart needed surgery on his left wrist in July and missed most of the season, but he'll be healthy for the start of spring training … Starting pitcher Scott Baker had Tommy John surgery last April and is expected ready by the start of the regular season. … Starting pitcher Matt Garza's 2012 season was ended in July by a stress reaction in his right elbow. His rehab is reportedly going well and the Cubs expect him ready by Opening Day.
Sneak preview: Top organizational prospect Javier Baez, a shortstop, got a big-league camp invite. The Cubs love Baez's bat (he hit 16 home runs with 46 RBI in 80 games in Single-A last year) and speed (24 stolen bases) but don't want to rush him to the majors. He may have to move to third base because Starlin Castro owns the big league job, but Baez could see the majors soon, perhaps in 2014.
Spring training info:
HoHoKam Park, 1235 N. Center St., Mesa. First workouts Feb. 12 (pitchers and catchers), Feb. 17 (full squad). First game Feb. 23. Tickets:

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