Cubs see pieces in place for 2013

As they enter Year Two under Theo Epstein’s management regime,

the Chicago Cubs insist the pieces are falling into place and that

they’re poised to make a jump.

Never mind all the talk about the long haul. They believe the

rebuilding process is in high gear.

”I think we can challenge for the division and compete with

anyone,” slugger Anthony Rizzo said.

That’s a big statement considering the Cubs are coming off a

101-loss season and the focus still remains more on the future as

they try to end a championship drought that dates to 1908. They’ve

been busy overhauling the roster and beefing up the infrastructure

ever since Epstein took over as president of baseball operations

before last season, hoping to build a foundation to contend on a

yearly basis.

They see new facilities in the Dominican Republic and in their

spring home of Mesa, Ariz., along with a commitment to developing

the minor league system – not to mention renovations to Wrigley

Field that they’re trying to get approved – paying big dividends

down the road.

They believe they will cash in on top prospects such as

shortstop Javier Baez and Jorge Soler at some point, too. But while

keeping their eyes on the future, Epstein and general manager Jed

Hoyer made it clear they’re looking for improvement now.

They don’t want to relive last season, when the Cubs parted with

high-priced veterans such as Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez and

Ryan Dempster on the way to a fifth-place finish in the NL League

Central. After watching Chicago drop 100 games for the first time

since 1966 and the third time in franchise history, management

veered slightly from its course and dug into the wallets a bit.

Besides bringing in low-priced players they hoped would

contribute, the Cubs made a big play for starter Anibal Sanchez.

When he re-signed with Detroit, they brought in Edwin Jackson on a

four-year, $52 million deal, adding a pitcher they believe will

still be a contributor when they’re ready to make a big run in a

few years.

That’s assuming it doesn’t come sooner.

”We’ve put ourselves in position to succeed,” said manager

Dale Sveum, in his second season. ”We have enough starting

pitching and we have a solid bullpen. And, if you look at offenses

on playoff teams, most guys had a career year or at least lived up

to their media guide. That’s what you need to have to score

consistent runs and compete.”

The Cubs believe they have enough arms with Jeff Samardzija,

Jackson and Matt Garza leading the rotation. They also have a young

All-Star shortstop in Starlin Castro and Gold Glove second baseman

in Darwin Barney.

Rizzo showed promise, too, batting .285 with 15 homers and 48

RBIs in just 87 games last season.

”If he gets 500-600 plate appearances, he’s going to put up

numbers worthy of being in the middle of the lineup,” Sveum said.

”That doesn’t necessarily mean we he needs to hit a ton of home

runs. We want RBI guys, and Anthony can be a good one. He did a

great job of hitting in clutch situations, and we want him to

continue that.”

But there are some issues lingering over this team.

Garza is expected to be sidelined until early to mid-May because

of a strained left lat, a blow to the Cubs on two fronts. Besides

being a top starter, he’s also one of their most valuable trade

pieces.

Alfonso Soriano’s name remains a regular on the trade rumor mill

and figures to stay there unless he gets dealt.

Then, there’s Carlos Marmol. It’s fair to say his status as the

closer is shaky, considering the trade with the Los Angeles for Dan

Haren that fell through and the arrival of Kyuji Fujikawa from

Japan.

”We can win a lot more games than we did last year,” said

Marmol, who finished with 20 saves in 23 chances but also walked 45

in 55 1-3 innings last season. ”Last season was such a grind for

everyone, but there’s a lot of positivity in the clubhouse. We’re

making progress. We’re taking steps in the right direction. We

believe in each other.”