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Cubs still looking toward future

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MESA, Ariz. -- About the best thing you can say about this year's version of the Chicago Cubs is that they have a really nice new spring-training facility.

The team they put on the field? Not so much.

But the new digs are a start, according to team president Theo Epstein.

"One (thing) is, no more excuses," Epstein said at a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony before pitchers and catchers reported. "This place is as good as it gets. If we can't get better here, we can't get better anywhere."

The Cubs don't figure to be much better than the 66-96 team that finished 2013. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer brought back that team virtually intact. This is Year 3 of the Epstein Experience, and the focus remains the long-term rebuilding plan.

As for the 2014 season, the Cubs are trying to muddle through without losing 100 games, as they did in 2012, when they went 61-101.

The biggest question fans are asking is: When will the kids be ready? The answer is maybe late 2014 for third baseman Kris Bryant and shortstop Javier Baez.

The main issues facing the team on the field this year will be the bullpen and whether first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro bounce back.

First-year manager Rick Renteria said recently acquired Jose Veras would be the closer to start the season; the Cubs have youngster Pedro Strop waiting in the wings.

Rizzo and Castro, whom Epstein signed to long-term contract extensions in the past two years, both had subpar offensive years in 2013. Rizzo's homerun (23) and RBI (80) totals were respectable last year, but the Cubs want improvement from the .233 batting average and .323 on-base percentage.

Castro's all-around game -- offense, defense and mental approach -- needs to improve, and the Cubs want a better hitting line of .245/.284/.347.

Overall, the Cubs must get on base more; their team OBP of .300 ranked 14th in the NL last year. The Cubs also were 14th in runs scored.

The top three of the starting rotation looks respectable, with righty Jeff Samardzija, lefty Travis Wood and righty Edwin Jackson. From there, though, the Cubs will try to piece it together with the likes of recently signed Jason Hammel likely getting the fourth spot and perhaps swingman Carlos Villanueva opening the season in the rotation again, as he did in 2013 before he moved to the bullpen.

NOTES, QUOTES

--RHP Jason Hammel formally agreed to a one-year contract worth $6 million on the day pitchers and catchers reported for spring training. The deal had been in the works for the better part of two weeks. The Cubs plan to use Hammel in the fourth spot of the rotation behind RHP Jeff Samardzija, LHP Travis Wood and RHP Edwin Jackson. Hammel, 31, was 7-8 with a 4.97 ERA last year with Baltimore.

--RHP James McDonald signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the Cubs as spring training began. McDonald pitched in only six games last year for the Pirates as shoulder problems derailed his season. In 2012, he went 12-8 with a 4.21 ERA for the Pirates. He is the cousin of OF Darnell McDonald, who is in camp as a nonroster player with the Cubs. McDonald could be a long reliever and spot starter.

--SS Starlin Castro will have all eyes on him throughout spring training after a down year in 2013. With top prospect Javier Baez set to open the season at shortstop for Triple-A (Des Moines) Iowa, questions have arisen whether Castro will move positions, especially in light of his sometimes inattentive play at short during the past couple of years. "Castro is our shortstop," GM Jed Hoyer said when he met the media on the day pitchers and catchers reported. New manager Rick Renteria said he needs to meet face to face with Castro before moving on and forming opinions.

--2B Darwin Barney has been at the Cubs' spring facility early. Barney, who missed out on a second straight Gold Glove last year, needs a much better year at the plate. He had a line of .208/.266/.303 last year. Barney admitted that he may have put on too much bulk last year. His bat speed may increase with a little less body weight this year.

--RHP Jose Veras will open the season as the team's closer. There has been talk that RHP Pedro Strop would get a shot after being a late-season understudy to Kevin Gregg last year. Veras, 33, pitched for Houston and Detroit last year. He could be a placeholder until RHP Kyuji Fujikawa is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, perhaps in June. "These guys are capable of falling into any role," said manager Rick Renteria. "As we get closer to breaking camp, I'm sure those questions shall be answered."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm just as peaceful as I've ever been as a person. Coming into a new position, I don't have any anxiousness. I am excited, obviously, because it's completely different now a role that I have." -- First-year manager Rick Renteria, on the first day of spring training.

ROSTER REPORT

PROJECTED ROTATION:

RHP Jeff Samardzija

LHP Travis Wood

RHP Edwin Jackson

RHP Jason Hammel

RHP Carlos Villanueva

The top three remain in place from last season. Hammel is a recent free-agent acquisition, signed to give the Cubs some much-needed depth in the rotation. The No. 5 spot is in flux. The Cubs had hoped RHP Jake Arrieta would be ready to resume starting after he finished last year in the rotation, but he came down with a tight shoulder over the winter and will be brought along slowly in spring training.

Villanueva is a veteran swingman. He prefers to start and opened last year in the Chicago rotation before moving to the pen. RHP Kyle Hendricks could be a candidate later in the year. He was the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2013, and he'll open this year in the rotation at Triple-A (Des Moines) Iowa.

PROJECTED BULLPEN:

RHP Jose Veras (closer)

LHP James Russell

LHP Wesley Wright

RHP Pedro Strop

RHP Justin Grimm

RHP James McDonald

The Cubs feel a whole lot better about the depth of their pen than they did at the end of 2013. Veras and Wright were signed in the offseason to provide veteran presence. Wright will help ease the load off Russell, who has had his arm nearly pitched off the past two seasons. They could give the Cubs a potent lefty combo.

Strop could be the heir apparent as closer, but Veras' presence will allow the Cubs to ease him into the role after he got a look-see late last year. Grimm and McDonald (signed at the start of spring training) give the Cubs options at long and middle relief, and both could be used as spot starters. LHP Chris Rusin, who has logged big-league time, could crack the pen or end up in the starting rotation at Triple-A (Des Moines) Iowa.

PROJECTED LINEUP:

SS Starlin Castro

LF Junior Lake

1B Anthony Rizzo

RF Nate Schierholtz

CF Justin Ruggiano/Ryan Sweeney

C Welington Castillo

3B Donnie Murphy/Luis Valbuena

2B Darwin Barney

However the Cubs line it up in the batting order, they must get on base more. Castro's .284 on-base percentage was unacceptable, but the Cubs don't have a true leadoff hitter, and he may be the best option.

Rizzo's 23 homers and 80 RBIs were OK last year, but the Cubs want more, especially with his batting average and OBP. Schierholtz was a pleasant surprise for the first half of the season before tailing off after the All-Star break. Castillo had his 2013 season end with knee surgery, but he should be healthy to start spring training. The Cubs like his bat. Third base will continue to be a problem, perhaps until top prospect Kris Bryant is ready. For now, Murphy and Valbuena will platoon, but Mike Olt could steal the job with a good spring. The Cubs got him last year from Texas in the Matt Garza trade, but vision problems wrecked his 2013 in the minor leagues.

TOP ROOKIES:

SS Javier Baez, 21, will start at Triple-A (Des Moines) after being named the organization's player of the year for 2013. He tore it up between Class A Daytona and Double-A (Kodak) Tennessee, combining for 37 homers and 111 RBIs. The Cubs will expose him to several positions in spring training with Starlin Castro the shortstop for the big-league team. Baez could be up sometime this season. 3B Kris Bryant, 22, the team's No. 1 draft choice last year, also could be up in 2014. Among three stops last year, Bryant went .336/.390/.688 with nine homers and 32 RBIs in 36 games. He figures to start this year at Tennessee. RHP Kyle Hendricks, 24, could come up and join the rotation late in the summer, especially if the Cubs trade pitching again at the July 31 deadline. He was the organization's pitcher of the year in the minor leagues. He went 13-4 with a 2.00 ERA and only 34 walks in 166.1 innings last year between Tennessee and Iowa.

MEDICAL WATCH:

--RHP Kyuji Fujikawa has been throwing off flat ground from up to 120 feet as he recovers from last year's Tommy John surgery. The Cubs hope to have him up on the mound soon. They're putting no timetable on a return to the major leagues, but June does not seem out of the question.

--RHP Jake Arrieta has come to spring training with tightness in his pitching shoulder. He will be behind the other pitchers in spring training, and the Cubs will bring him along slowly. It may be that he opens the regular season on the disabled list and on a rehab stint.
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