Anything but the cellar would be a surprise for the Cubs

If Jeff Samardzija doesn't agree to an extension in the coming months, he figures to be gone by the trade deadline.

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Now in the third winter of the Theo Epstein era, the Chicago Cubs continue to focus on 2015 and beyond at the expense of the immediate future. Given a five-year contract to right the franchise, Epstein has shown no interest in taking shortcuts even after finishing fifth and losing 197 games in his first two seasons.

The biggest change this off-season has been in the manager’s office, where Dale Sveum was fired with a year to go on his contract. The hope is that rookie manager Rick Renteria can be a capable babysitter for Starlin Castro and prove better at developing the team’s young core.

Notable losses

The Cubs did most of their heavy moving last summer when they traded virtually any veteran who could bring back at least a glimmer of hope for the future. Among the departed: Alfonso Soriano, Matt Garza, Scott Feldman, David DeJesus, Scott Hairston and Carlos Marmol.

Since season’s end, they’ve traded outfielder Brian Bogusevic and lost backup catcher Dioner Navarro to free agency. They aren’t expected to bring back any of their other free agents, namely closer Kevin Gregg and righty reliever Matt Guerrier.

Key additions

Besides a new skipper, the Cubs brought in an Epstein favorite from his days in Boston, St. Louisan Bill Mueller, to be the hitting coach. Mueller’s main charge will be improving the team’s dismal on-base percentage (.300), which ranked 28th in the majors.

As for new players, not much has been done. They signed right-handed reliever Jose Veras (one-year, $4 million), who becomes the leading candidate to close. None of the other pickups — outfielder Justin Ruggiano (trade), backup catcher George Kottaras (trade) and lefty reliever Wesley Wright (free agent) — figures to make much of an impact. Ruggiano hit 18 homers with a .222 average for the Marlins last season and is ticketed to start in center field.

The Cubs also have stocked up on minor league free agents, hoping a couple still have a little game or will provide depth at Class AAA. Among them: lefty Jonathan Sanchez, outfielders Ryan Kalish, Mitch Maier and Casper Wells, infielder Ryan Roberts, right-hander Cory Wade and catcher Eli Whiteside.

What’s next

The Cubs reportedly are among the clubs planning to pursue Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who is expected to command an investment of $100 million. With contenders such as the Dodgers and Yankees also interested, the Cubs would appear to be a long shot for the 25-year-old.

The Cubs also have been pondering a trade of hard-throwing right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who is entering his final season before becoming eligible for free agency. If Samardzija doesn’t agree to an extension in the coming months, he figures to be gone by the trade deadline.

Sizable holes remain at third base, left field and at least one spot in the rotation but, barring a signing of Tanaka, the Cubs aren’t expected to spend much on reinforcements.

They say

Renteria on the challenges ahead: "We play in a tremendously strong division, which is great for us because the club and the players have a chance to really learn a lot about themselves and what it’s going to take to ultimately get to that winning conclusion. A lot of clubs in the division are now playing very well and we want to be a part of that. Obviously, we’re a club that’s in transition."

We say

The 100th season of Wrigley Field is looking very much like it will be the Cubs’ 106th straight season without a World Series championship. While Cubs fans know all about patience, at this point it’s difficult to judge how much progress Epstein and Co. have made.

The young core of Anthony Rizzo, Rex Barney and Castro all regressed last season, while their top prospects remain at least another season away from the majors. Considering the strength of the NL Central, anything but a last-place finish in 2014 would be a step in the right direction.

It also would be a major surprise.

Tomorrow: Brewers

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