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Musick: For Cubs, questions outnumber answers

Published: Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 11:57 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014 12:06 a.m. CDT

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CHICAGO – The toughest questions for Cubs management will come Saturday.

That’s when fans attending this weekend’s Cubs Convention will participate in an hour-long question-and-answer session with the Ricketts family. Once the owners have left the stage, another session will follow with team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and other front office executives.

Ask away, Cubs fans.

Ask hard questions.

After all, you’re the ones paying hundreds (maybe thousands) for tickets to see a team that has lost nearly 300 games in three years. You’re the ones being asked to pay for the present while you wait for the future, when more wins are expected.

“I welcome all questions,” Epstein said Friday before the opening ceremonies at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. “I really believe in what we’re doing.”

As Epstein spoke, prized power-hitting prospect Kris Bryant and several of his minor-league comrades, including Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, walked past. These are the players the Cubs want you to think about, not major leaguers such as Donnie Murphy, Ryan Sweeney, Luis Valbuena and George Kottaras.

So, you know, maybe ask those questions about how awesome Bryant will be instead of why the team’s biggest offseason addition has been a mascot.

“We just wrapped a phenomenal, weeklong rookie development program with several players who are going to have a significant impact on the future of this franchise,” Epstein said. “Morale is great among that group, and we’re incredibly optimistic about the future.

“Obviously, the results haven’t manifested yet at the big league level, and that’s what the fans pay to see, so we should answer for that. I think we have to be honest about where we are as an organization, where we are as a major league team, and where we’re headed. I couldn’t believe more in where we’re going.”

But where exactly are they going?

Once the calendar hits 2015 or 2016, other teams in the NL Central are not contractually obligated to step aside. The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates are loaded with young talent, and the Cincinnati Reds are far from becoming an easy out.

Yet Epstein maintained a poker face, at least in front of the cameras. When a reporter noted that the Cubs improved by five wins from 2012 to 2013 and asked whether another five-win increase was reasonable in 2014, Epstein didn’t flinch.

“Well, we certainly want a lot more than that,” said Epstein, who fired manager Dale Sveum at the end of last season and replaced him with Rick Renteria, the former bench coach of the San Diego Padres. “The goal is always to make it into the postseason. You never surrender until you’re mathematically eliminated.”

Hey, there’s a motto for 2014.

Chicago Cubs baseball! We never surrender until we’re mathematically eliminated!

Fortunately, Epstein could not hear my inner thoughts as he discussed his team.

“Obviously, there is a bigger picture at play,” Epstein said. “We’ve been honest from Day One that if there’s tension between the immediate present and this sustainable future that we’re building, we’re going to lean toward the future.

“But, that said, this season is starting. We don’t show up in spring training saying, like, ‘Hey, let’s get ready for 2000-and-whatever year down the road.’ We’re trying to compete and win as many games as we can in 2014.”

Of course, the players on the big league roster will try to win. Yet, by and large, Epstein and his front-office staff have filled the roster with temp workers, mostly anonymous but friendly players with high hopes and low ceilings.

Perhaps Jeff Samardzija will stay past the next few months to anchor the rotation, but it’s more likely that he will be gone by the trading deadline. Perhaps the Cubs will invest mega-money to sign star Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, a 25-year-old right-hander, but is it wrong to assume that a World Series hopeful such as the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers will win the sweepstakes?

Is it wrong to assume that another long, disappointing year is in store for the Cubs?

“There’s been a lot of teams in the history of this game that have come from last place to make the playoffs,” said Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney, a veteran of 470 games and zero playoff appearances. “So, why can’t we be that team?

“I think guys are growing up and maturing. When you have a bad season, you learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot about your teammates. We’re ready to rebound and have a good year.”

Do you agree?

Ask away, Cubs fans.

• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at tmusick@shawmedia.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.

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