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updated: 3/4/2014 7:54 PM

Cubs must know which can't-miss will miss

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  • Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant is one of the team's many big-time prospects at spring camp this year.

      Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant is one of the team's many big-time prospects at spring camp this year.
    Associated Press

 
 

After years of being among the worst, the Cubs are finally among the best-ranked farm systems in all of baseball.

But their work has only just begun.

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They are loaded with position players in the minors but have a serious lack of pitching, something they can add through the draft and free agency, especially as they creep closer to having a team that can compete for a playoff spot.

That's at least a couple years away, maybe even more, depending on when they can match baseball development with revenue from the business side, be it stadium renovations and signage or a monster TV deal.

As Epstein said at the convention, he looks forward to a time when the Cubs matter again.

"What I want the conversation to be," Epstein said, "is, 'I'm not sure the Cubs' eighth starter is good enough. What if three guys go down in the rotation? I don't think that pitcher at Double-A is quite ready yet, so we need to sign a long guy to step into the rotation.'

"That should be the narrative as a baseball organization, and it will be as our baseball plan moves forward and our business plan moves forward. We're going to become a lot more relevant. I'm not going to sit here and complain about it in the meantime. We're not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. We're a last-place team."

The Atlanta Braves finished last in the NL West four times in five years in the late '80s -- the other was a fifth-place finish -- but in 1991 they went from worst to first and all the way to the World Series.

That started a run of 14 consecutive playoff appearances under general manager John Schuerholz, including nine NLCS appearances and five trips to the World Series.

Sustained success.

That's what Epstein has in mind. He wants to build toward a point in time when the Cubs can make the playoffs every year, or at least compete for a postseason spot every season, having put together an organization that can consistently produce players from the Cubs' minor league system.

He has spoken repeatedly about the danger of throwing good money after bad in the free-agent market, and how hazardous it can be to stake your hopes on purchasing players to plug the holes that should have been filled internally.

There will be spending, there will be mistakes and there will also be hits, but the shopping spree won't occur until the Cubs believe they're ready to take the next step.

Until then, they scout, sign, develop and promote.

If you have 10 top-notch, A-plus prospects -- and the Cubs are approaching that number -- you're probably lucky if one becomes a star, one becomes a good player and one contributes to your team.

So you can never have enough prospects, and you can never be guaranteed of their success until they're in the big leagues and performing well over a two- or three-year period.

The key is being able to scout your own players, evaluate honestly without falling in love, and then figuring out before anyone else does which ones will make it and which ones won't.

Schuerholz was a genius at hyping the Braves' hottest prospects and then trading away those he believed wouldn't make it big. But he created a market for those players and used those chips to get the players he needed to fill out his roster, like Fred McGriff, Marquis Grissom, Otis Nixon, Denny Neagle and Kenny Lofton.

During that run from 1991-2005, rarely did Schuerholz make a mistake and deal away a player who went on to star somewhere else -- refusing to trade players like Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Javy Lopez -- but during that time he also made certain that teams around the game coveted the best of the rest.

This will be a crucial portion of Epstein's program over the next few years. Some of the best and brightest in the Cubs' farm system will be moved -- much to the chagrin of the fan base -- in order to acquire players the Cubs need to compete, most likely starting pitching.

It will be up to Epstein and his top lieutenants to ensure that they keep the best and move those who will not reach stardom.

So the hype machine works full time to create the impression that every Cubs prospect you hear about is headed to the Hall of Fame -- or at least an All-Star Game.

In some cases, it's real. In some cases, it's nothing more than hype.

For Theo Epstein, the key to someday winning at Wrigley Field will be in knowing the difference -- before anyone else figures it out.

brozner@dailyherald.com

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

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