The Chicago Cubs celebrate a 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers in a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Chicago Cubs pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers during the first inning of a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Benny Sieu)
CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein made one thing clear. He sees no reason why his team can't compete for a division title next season.
With the arrival of top prospects such as Jorge Soler and bounce-back seasons from shortstop Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs are ready to kick their rebuilding project into the next gear after finishing fifth in the NL Central for the fifth straight year.
"We now feel like we have the talent to compete, and anytime you have enough talent to compete, you want to set your sights high," Epstein said Tuesday. "The goal will be to win the NL Central."
"Our goal is the NL Central title next year," he said.
The Cubs went 73-89 and finished below .500 for the fifth straight season, their longest run since a six-year skid from 1978-83. But as bad as that seems on the surface, there is a different vibe surrounding the organization.
The long-awaited renovation of Wrigley Field, a four-year project, is getting underway, and the top-to-bottom overhaul of the baseball operation that Epstein started when he was hired in October 2011 is beginning to pay dividends.
Now, Epstein expects them to be players in free agency.
Between this offseason, next season's trade deadline and the following offseason, Epstein said, the Cubs "will certainly add impact talent from outside the organization."
"We're going to be very involved," he said. "We will add talent from outside the organization. I hope we add impact talent. But it has to make sense. We can't completely sell out just for 2015. We can't forget about the health of the organization and all the strides that we've made and the process that we have for building the right kind of organization."
The Cubs could use a front-line starter, and Oakland's Jon Lester might be a potential target. He has an expiring contract and a history with Epstein from their time in Boston. They would also like to add to the outfield and a left-handed reliever.
Epstein liked what he saw in the Cubs' first season under manager Rick Renteria. He said all the coaches will be back with one exception — assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley. He is considering a scouting job in the organization as well as opportunities with other teams. That creates an opening on the Cubs' staff.
Could Manny Ramirez fill it?
He drew good reviews for his work as a player-coach at Triple-A Iowa this season. Epstein said Ramirez has not yet decided to retire, and he was noncommittal when asked if the job could be his.
"I want to see whether he wants to continue playing or not before I answer that question," Epstein said.
For now, he sees the pieces falling into place, the big picture coming into focus.
"I couldn't be more excited about what we have going for ourselves, acknowledging that we haven't done the job at the big league level so far," Epstein said.
The 22-year-old Soler impressed toward the end of the season, hitting .292 with five homers and 20 RBIs in just 24 games. Right-hander Kyle Hendricks is off to a robust start after going 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts. Rizzo (.286, 32 homers, 78 RBIs) and Castro (.292, 14 homers, 65 RBIs) re-established themselves after struggling last season. Jake Arrieta was 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA in 25 starts and pitched a one-hitter late in the season.
There is work to be done, but Epstein believes it's time to strike. It's no longer all about the future at the corner of Clark and Addison, about stocking up the farm system.
Now comes the next phase. That does not necessarily mean the Cubs will empty the bank account and send the major league payroll to the stratosphere. But they are in position to make some moves.
"We're not all the way there yet, 2015 is not the end of the road," Epstein said.
He points to the young talent maturing, to a renovated Wrigley and a new TV deal coming. He sees a day when everything is in place and the Cubs have an elite payroll.
"We're not going to accomplish all of those things in 2015," Epstein said. "But do we have a chance to take a significant step forward and do we have the talent to compete — and compete for an NL Central title — if things go our way and continue to work hard? Absolutely."