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Epstein looks to continue growth of Cubs' core

Epstein looks to continue growth of Cubs' core

Epstein looks to continue growth of Cubs' core
CHICAGO -- Over the weekend, Theo Epstein and his young son, Jack, walked around Wrigley Field, and saw how the ivy on the outfield wall had changed colors from deep summer green to autumn's reds and golds.

"It just flashed to how great it would be to be playing baseball at this time of year at Wrigley," Epstein said Tuesday. "That's the goal to get there and to get there in a way that allows us to do it year in and year out."

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of when Epstein took over as the Cubs' president of baseball operations after 10 seasons as the Red Sox general manager. He didn't plan on celebrating -- the Cubs did lose 101 games in his first year at the helm -- but Epstein said he was enthused by what's transpired so far except for one cosmetic change.

"I have a lot more gray hair now than I did a year ago -- my wife reminds me of that all the time," Epstein said. "I do feel really energized by a lot of the things that are going on here."

One year ago, the Cubs had one player who projected as part of the core Epstein and Co. are trying to develop and that was shortstop Starlin Castro. Today, Epstein said there are at least half a dozen in the organization, including pitcher Jeff Samardzija, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and prospects Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.

What was encouraging was watching future Cubs in Instructional League in Arizona earlier this month.

"That was a really nice feeling to be down there and see a lot of dedicated Cubs baseball [operations] personnel, some new, some old, all buying into the collective 'Cubs way' of doing things that they helped define, impacting a really talented group of young players," Epstein said.

"I also wake up every day and recognize we lost 101 games and understand how painful that was for everybody, including me, and that provides further motivation to get out of this position that we're in," he said. "I think there were a lot of positives. That core, at least in my mind, went from one player to half a dozen, and if we can do that again in 2013, and we look up and we have close to a dozen players in our core, I'll feel great about the overall health of the organization.

"I also want to make the playoffs and I understand that's a big challenge, so I hope we hit on a few guys this winter and get off to a good start and we have one of those unexpected seasons."

Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have some work to do. The Cubs head into the offseason looking for at least two starting pitchers to join Samardzija, Matt Garza and Travis Wood. They need a third baseman unless Ian Stewart returns. He underwent wrist surgery in June, and is arbitration eligible. Stewart was beginning light workouts and should transition to baseball activity soon.

What else has Epstein learned in his first year? He's seen Wrigley Field's mood swings first hand, which emphasizes the need for a balanced lineup.

"You need players who can elevate the baseball and have some pop because there are going to be days when you need home runs to win," he said, "but there will be a lot of days when you need to play good fundamental baseball and have players who can cover a lot of ground in the outfield and not make mistakes."

He also noticed a lack of plate discipline at all levels in the organization.

"I believe 90 percent of the game revolves around controlling the strike zone when you combine what it means to do so from an offensive standpoint and also from a pitching standpoint," Epstein said. "It's something we weren't really good at. We didn't walk enough, our pitchers walked too many hitters, we didn't manage counts as well as we should've."

Those things were stressed during the Instructional League games and workouts at Fitch Park in Mesa, Ariz.

"It was a group that was really proud to be Cubs and I think they understand they're the primary focus of the organization," he said of the prospects. "They took pride in the uniform, like being around one another, they like playing hard and winning and learning and getting better and I think they know they're pretty important to us."

And, hopefully, someday they'll be playing playoff baseball at Wrigley Field.

"It's fun to be a part of," Epstein said. "I'm happy I'm here."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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