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Article updated: 10/10/2012 2:19 PM

Cubs facing long trek to respectability

By Barry Rozner

It's a good idea to listen closely when Theo Epstein speaks.

It is the rare general manager who does not deceive in order to sell tickets, but even with the difficult season Cubs fans have endured, Epstein -- when he met reporters to wrap the season -- didn't pretend to push a timeline that isn't realistic.

Asked if he thinks his team will contend in 2014, Epstein said, "I haven't considered 2014 or any specific year. I just know that we have to continue to push the organization forward."

In other words, no promises about 2014, which -- at this very moment -- sounds a little early.

"I'd be incredibly disappointed if our baseball operation as a whole is not much, much healthier by then and in a position where we can see what contention is going to look like here," Epstein said. "In other words, our core of players is getting to a point where it's well defined."

When he says, "…can see what contention is going to look like," he's saying 2014 is not going to be the year.

"I don't know what that timetable is going to be and how quickly (the kids) develop," Epstein said. "I would hope that (by 2014) we would have some real definition to our core of young players and at that point seeking out to really complement it and winning plenty of ballgames."

We already know that 2013 is going to look a lot like 2012, but it sounds like 2014 is probably still at least a year early to consider legit contention, at least contention to the point of buying players who may help win that season.

It's possible players may develop more quickly than Epstein imagines now, but he has seen what's in the system and he knows the players the Cubs have added to the organization in the last 11 months.

And that says to him that this process will not move quickly considering the size of the job.

"I think I understood the scope of it," Epstein said. "There have been some pleasant surprises and some not-so-pleasant surprises. Yeah, it's a pretty comprehensive overhaul of the baseball organization here, and we're in the midst of it now.

"The progress isn't going to be constant or linear. It's not going to always show itself."

The first Cubs administrator really given the time and money to build a front-office infrastructure, Epstein does believe there's been growth in 2012.

"I feel really good about a lot of things that are going on behind the scenes," Epstein said. "Sometimes there's a delay in how long it takes for that to manifest at the big-league level. We're going through that now, but I feel really good about the direction of our baseball operation as a whole.

"We're accountable for what happens in the big leagues despite the good things that are going on behind the scenes. This is a very disappointing baseline that we have to grow from.

"My hope is that years from now, when we're celebrating successes year in and year out, we look back at 2012 and say, 'Look how far we came.' I think that we will."

With teams no longer able to spend unconditionally in the international market and through the draft, Epstein can't expedite minor league growth, which is how the major-league product will improve.

This will no doubt aggravate some Cubs fans. Daily email suggests many are uncomfortable with the plan, don't believe in it or demand acceleration.

It's understandable. The wait has been beyond any pain Epstein probably thinks he comprehends, but only if you've grown up here can anyone really get it.

Still, the other path is a sordid and unhealthy one, pouring hundreds of millions into free agency with the very same promise of precisely nothing, complete with a guarantee that any short-term success will be overwhelmed by long-term misery.

Epstein has a plan that Tom Ricketts has signed off on, and at least after one season of taking stock, Epstein sees no reason to alter it. He understands just how far away the Cubs are from being in a position to add rather than subtract.

That time isn't next year and probably not the year after. Better Epstein should offer the truth than pretend that the Cubs will suddenly have what it takes to win in a year or two.

Patience is not a virtue for Cubs fans. It's a ball and chain. Promise has become a bitter pill, easy to swallow only if accompanied by a box of wine. The clock is always ticking, for some faster than others, and the pages fly off the calendar.

The years fade. Plans fail. Hope finds a bottom.

But Theo Epstein tells you the truth, and he believes the light at the end of the tunnel -- far away though it may be -- is no longer a freight train headed in their direction.

That is far better than the alternative.

ŸHear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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