Cubs see bigger, better things for 2015

MILWAUKEE - The Cubs have taken baby steps on the road to respectability. So what should the expectations be for next year?

"To be the NL Central champs, to win a division," said first baseman Anthony Rizzo after Sunday's 5-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. "Obviously, that's the playoffs, and we want to go deep. It takes a lot of work, and we have a very tough division.

"The teams aren't going anywhere in it. It's only getting better. That's our expectation. That's the message we want to send."

The Cubs finished the season with a record of 73-89, 7 more wins than last year and 12 more than in 2012, the first year of the baseball-operations front office led by president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.

While the Cubs seem headed in the right direction, especially with a pocketful of young players, winning a division next year might be a leap.

First things first.

The Cubs finished the season by taking two of three from the Cardinals and Brewers. They also weathered the July 4 trade of pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland to avoid a second-half collapse like the ones they suffered the past two years.

It all had the clubhouse buzzing with a positive vibe this weekend.

"I think it's really good," said manager Rick Renteria, who completed his first season as a big-league manager. "All those guys know we want to step it up, that we need to come out, go into spring training really preparing to be a better club with the expectations of us again improving and making ourselves hopefully a topic of conversation throughout the season."

Rizzo played a part in Sunday. He hit his 32nd home run of the season, a 2-run drive to center field in the first inning. The 32 home runs were the most by a Cubs left-handed hitter since Rick Monday hit 32 in 1976.

Despite missing 18 games late in the season with a back ailment, Rizzo finished with a robust line of .286/.386/.527 with 78 RBI.

"I think as an organization we feel some momentum going into the off-season," he said. "That's what we need, not only the players, but the front office as well, and we'll see what happens in the off-season now. There's always optimism, and now you can see it around everywhere. We've just got to keep the core and keep developing as individuals and developing as a team."

Making their pitches:

Right-hander Jacob Turner got the win Sunday, going 5 innings and giving up 4 hits and 2 runs. He finished 6-11 with a 6.13 between the Marlins and Cubs.

"It's definitely a good way to finish, a good team win today," said Turner, who will be in the mix for a rotation spot next year. "The offense got me the early lead, which was crucial."

The save went to Hector Rondon, the second-year man who was a Rule 5 draft pick before last season. It was Rondon's 29th save and his 15th in a row to end the season. He wound up being the closer after the early-season failure and eventual release of veteran Jose Veras.

"It was fitting that he closed it out," Renteria said. "He chipped away. All those guys on the back end really chipped away and developed as the season progressed. He went out there and did it one more time."

The book on Baez:

Rookie Javier Baez ended the season 1-for-5 with 3 strikeouts. He had a line of .169/.227/.324 with 9 homers, 20 RBI and 95 strikeouts in 213 at-bats. His last home run was Sept. 13 at Pittsburgh.

Baez came up from Class AAA Iowa on Aug. 5, and the Cubs let him endure the rookie struggles with the hope he'd be familiar with the league and be ready to contribute more to start next season.

Cubs finish 2014 on winning note

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