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5 things to look for as Cubs start spring training, try to take next step to end losing cycle

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CHICAGO - Theo Epstein never said the overhaul would be easy. As he enters his third year as president of baseball operations, more struggling appears to be in store for the Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs are eyeing their fifth straight losing season, which would be the longest such run for them in three decades, while they wait for their top prospects to develop in the minors.

With that in mind, here are five things to look for as they open spring training with pitchers and catchers reporting on Thursday.

YOUTH IS SERVED: The Cubs' top four prospects — infielder Javier Baez, outfielder Albert Almora, third baseman Kris Bryant and outfielder Jorge Soler — will be in camp together for the first time. Get a look while you can, because they appear headed to the minors before Opening Day. But their progress will be one of the biggest stories this spring and beyond as the Cubs try to produce their first winning season since 2009.

NEW LEADERSHIP: Chicago hired Rick Renteria to replace fired manager Dale Sveum because he is known for his work with young players. Many fans were hoping the Cubs would land Joe Girardi. But if Renteria can get the most out of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo while establishing a proper environment for the arrival of the prized prospects, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will take that. If nothing else, the record can't get any worse, can it? The Cubs are coming off a two-year run under Sveum in which they went 127-197 and produced more losses in a pair of seasons than at any other time in their cursed history. They've dropped 288 games the past three years.

NICE PAD: Well, look at that. The Cubs have a shiny home. Check that, they have a shiny new spring training home. While the renovations at Wrigley Field remain stalled due to legal wrangling with the neighbouring rooftop owners about changes that could obstruct their views, the team will be playing in fancy digs at least while they're in Arizona. Voters in Mesa approved a $99 million outlay of public money for the stadium complex in 2010 for a new facility that figures to be a major upgrade. It keeps the Cubs on one site throughout spring training for the first time in decades. They'd move from Fitch Park to HoHoKam Stadium once games began.

TIME TO REBOUND: Castro's and Rizzo's struggles last season went a long way toward Sveum getting shown the door. Now, it's time for them to step up. In Castro's case, that means regaining the form that made him a two-time All-Star. There were too many lapses in the field. His batting average dropped to a career-low .245, and among shortstops, Castro and the White Sox's Alexei Ramirez tied for the major league lead with 22 errors.

Rizzo saw his home run total increase from 15 to 23 last season, but he played in 160 games compared to just 87 in 2012. He also saw his average dip from .285 to .233.

SEE YA' SAMARDZIJA?: Pitcher Jeff Samardzija agreed to a one-year, $5.3 million contract on Saturday, avoiding arbitration, but his long-term future remains up in the air. The 29-year-old, right-hander is a candidate to be traded.

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