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Epstein says he sees Cubs making progress despite record, insists better times approaching

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MESA, Ariz. - No matter what the record says, Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein insists he sees progress as he begins his third season in charge.

It hasn't shown at the major league level.

"The people that we have in place in this organization — the coaches, scouts — I believe are impact, and I believe in the processes that we have in place," Epstein said Thursday. "It takes time to turn our organization around. It takes time to build impact talent and to build requisite depth. But it's happening. People in those meetings, the people in this organization, really believe that we're on the verge of something special. And we understand that we're perceived otherwise, and that's our fault because we've been a last-place club the last couple years. We're not protesting. We need to earn our way into a position where we're championship contenders on an annual basis, and we feel like that is certainly moving in the right direction."

It hasn't been an easy process, and while success might be on the horizon, it doesn't appear to be at hand.

Pitchers and catchers reported on Thursday, and for the Cubs, it doesn't look like much will be different this season. They were relatively quiet in the off-season, although they did hire manager Rick Renteria to replace the fired Dale Sveum and made a run at star Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, but mostly it looks like they are in for more rough times at the major league level as they wait for their top prospects to develop in the minors.

Their most recent winning season was when they went 83-78 under Lou Piniella in 2009. With four straight sub-.500 seasons, they've matched their longest streak since 1984 to 1988. And another losing season would put them on their longest run since they finished below .500 six years in a row from 1978 to 1983.

For now, the Cubs continue to sell hope, a promise that better days are coming. They tout their minor league system, and while renovations to Wrigley Field remain on hold, they can point to new facilities in the Dominican Republic along with a spring training home that just opened.

As for the Cubs' record, it can't get much worse.

They've dropped 91 or more games each of the past three years and are coming off a two-year run under Sveum that produced a 127-197 record. They're hoping Renteria will provide the right atmosphere for young major league players such as shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo as well as top prospects Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant.

They believe they have three solid starters in Travis Wood, Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson, although Jackson struggled last season and Samardzija is a potential trade chip after he was unable to reach a long-term agreement and took a one-year deal.

Jake Arrieta, a candidate to start, might not be ready for the beginning of the season because of tightness in his right shoulder. General manager Jed Hoyer revealed Thursday that Arrieta, acquired from Baltimore last July, experienced some tightness this winter and is being brought along slowly.

Hoyer announced Arrieta's injury after confirming the Cubs agreed to one-year contracts with starting pitchers Jason Hammel and James McDonald. Both could be candidates to be traded before the deadline if they succeed, considering that's exactly what the Cubs did with Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman the past two seasons.

"We know we have some numbers now," Hoyer said.

They also have hope that better days are coming.

"There's a real dichotomy between how the organization is perceived from the outside and how we look at it internally and the morale that we have internally," Epstein said.

NOTES: Renteria tabbed newcomer Jose Veras as the closer. ... Hoyer basically dismissed the idea of moving Castro to another position even though he and the White Sox's Alexei Ramirez led major league shortstops with 22 errors last season and Baez is in the pipeline. "Castro's our shortstop," Hoyer said. "We have all the confidence in the world that he'll remain our shortstop and he'll keep working hard and keep improving. And he knows there's (room) to improve there." ... Hoyer said reliever Kyuji Fujikawa will soon start throwing off the mound. He's coming off Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow. ... Epstein said the Cubs will look to draft pitchers going forward, although not necessarily with their first pick.

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