Epstein expects Cubs to contend for NL Central in 2015

President of baseball ops sees 'a day coming' soon when all pieces fit together

Epstein expects Cubs to contend for NL Central in 2015

CHICAGO -- The emphasis in the first three seasons under Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has been to restock the Minor League system and build a foundation of impact players. In 2015, Epstein feels the Cubs will take a major step and not just develop players, but be competitive.

"I think we've proved we can be very competitive in this division, and when you have a chance to compete, you should set your sights high, and that means our goal is the [National League] Central title next year," Epstein said.

Epstein addressed the 2014 season and looked ahead to next year during a 40-minute session at Wrigley Field, which is beginning its makeover as well. The business side -- a $575 million renovation plan of the 100-year-old ballpark -- and the baseball side are both moving full-speed ahead.

While players are eager to see what new music will be linked to the video scoreboard going up in left field, Epstein is focused on the progress made under manager Rick Renteria, who completed his first season at 73-89.

All-Stars Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo rebounded from tough 2013 seasons, Jake Arrieta emerged as a potential No. 1 starter and young arms in the bullpen such as Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm and closer Hector Rondon performed well this year. They'll be looking for additions.

The Cubs will be looking for impact talent via free agency, Epstein said, but he cautioned that any deal has to make sense and they will not "sell out just for 2015." Among the needs are another starting pitcher, a left-handed reliever, and outfield help.

"There's a day coming when all of our young talent will be here, and it will have all matured," Epstein said. "There's a day coming when we'll have that impact talent from outside the organization, significant investments made possible in part by the presence of those many good young players. There's a day coming when we'll fully have learned how to win. There's a day coming when we'll be playing in a newly restored Wrigley Field. There's a day coming when we'll have an elite payroll thanks to a new TV deal.

"That day is probably not 2015 -- we're not going to accomplish all those things in 2015. But do we have a chance to take a significant step forward and do we have the talent to compete for an NL Central title if things go our way and we continue to work hard? Absolutely."

The next 15 months will be key in terms of player acquisitions, Epstein said. That time frame includes this coming offseason, the next Trade Deadline and next offseason.

They're also aware of how some of the young talent still needs time, such as Javier Baez, who batted .169 with 95 strikeouts in 52 games after he was called up Aug. 5. Baez is expected to be the Cubs' Opening Day second baseman, Epstein said.

"Javy is extraordinarily talented and also very raw at the same time," Epstein said. "He came up as a 21-year-old and learned an awful lot this year about, on one hand, how talented he is, and how some of those things translate right away to the big league level."

Baez also learned how good Major League pitching is and that he needs to make quite a few adjustments. And he's a perfect example of the theme Epstein projected for 2015.

"We're being open about the fact that we're here to compete and our goal is to win the [division] title, but at the same time we're not going to bail on our young players, we're not going to abandon our vision," Epstein said. "We just have to make the tough decisions and strike that balance the right way."

Epstein admitted Renteria had some limitations with the roster, such as relievers who were restricted because of past injuries and youngsters without much experience. But the manager did fulfill many of the criteria laid out for him, such as developing a positive attitude, setting a good tone for the players and getting them to play hard.

"He established an environment where our young players could continue to grow and feel support, and where they could learn how to be big leaguers, and where they could learn how to win," Epstein said.

Baseball executives, players and scouts have told Epstein that they recognize the high level of talent on the Cubs roster, and he hopes fans can continue to be patient. They'll be rewarded soon.

"By and large, I feel more fans have really put their trust in us to get this thing right and bought into the vision we have," Epstein said. "It's exciting to be at a point where we can turn the page and reward them with winning baseball."

• The Cubs' coaching staff will return for 2015 with the exception of assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley, who could switch to a scouting role with the team, but is considering other options, Epstein said. This was Brumley's first season on the Cubs coaching staff.

Manny Ramirez was a player/coach at Triple-A Iowa and helped some of the young players there. Would he be considered for the assistant hitting coach job on the Cubs?

"Manny has not decided to retire as of yet," Epstein said. "We have a really nice relationship with Manny. He did an outstanding job with the organization and we'll continue to stay in touch."

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.