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Karnes: Could next year finally be coming in Chicago?

| Thursday, September 4, 2014

It takes awhile for the reality of being a Chicago Cubs fan to really sink in. As a kid, every summer seemed like it’d finally be the year, that this season would be the one the Cubs would win their first World Series since 1908. But then another season ends without a championship. And another. Another major injury robs the Cubs of a star, or another heralded prospect turns out to be a bust. “There’s always next year,” echoes through Wrigley Field each October, but every Cubs fan eventually make a realization – maybe “next year” is never coming.

It takes a special amount of failure to be dubbed the “Lovable Losers,” but the Cubs are a uniquely tormented franchise. One hundred and six years and counting without a World Series, no World Series appearances since 1945 and a litany of depressing incidents like Sosa’s corked bat, the 1969 collapse and of course, the Bartman Game in 2003. Most seasoned Cubs fans have come to expect each season to be full of injuries, disappointing stars and ultimately disappointment.

Enter Theo Epstein. The man who engineered the end to Boston’s championship drought came to Chicago in 2011 to take over as the Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations. Since then, Epstein, along with general manager Jed Hoyer, has redesigned the Cubs from the ground up. Gone are expensive, aging stars like Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Dempster, traded away to allow the new front office to start following their long-term blueprint.

The first few seasons have been bleak, with more than 90 losses in the past three and a 64-76 record thus far in 2014. Yet the seeds planted by Epstein upon his arrival have begun to sprout.

The Cubs already have a pair of young All-Stars in first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro, but their talent-stocked farm system offers several players with even higher ceilings. Two of the most highly-touted young players, second baseman Javy Baez and outfielder Jorge Soler, recently made their MLB debuts and immediately showed lighting-rod power rarely seen in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. The duo became only the third and fourth players in MLB history to hit three home runs in their first three games. While Baez has struggled since, Soler, a Cuban defector signed by the Cubs in 2012, is still hitting .462 after seven games in the big leagues.

The scary thing is that Baez and Soler are just the tip of the iceberg. The best of the bunch still waiting in the minor leagues might be 22-year old third basemen Kris Bryant, who is expected to make his MLB debut in 2015. The second overall pick in the 2013 draft, Bryant earned the 2014 USA TODAY Sports Minor League Player of the Year award after hitting 43 home runs between Double-AA and Triple-AAA this season. His absurd power also led ESPN to name him the top-ranked prospect in all of baseball, and he’s not the only Cubbie among ESPN’s top five. Shortstop Addison Russell, a five-tool 20-year old acquired this year in the Cubs’ trade of pitcher Jeff Samardzjia, joins him. While Castro already holds down shortstop at an All-Star level in Chicago, Russell’s talent is so immense that there is already talk of him forcing Castro to move positions or be traded.

There are certainly still concerns for the Cubs’ future. Their pitching prospects lack the pedigree of their slugging counterparts, and there is always a chance the some of these prospects fail to perform. But through the draft, trades and international signings, Epstein has acquired a collection of potential stars unrivaled by any Cubs team in recent memory and brought back an emotion long missing from Wrigley Field – hope. Next year is finally on the horizon in Chicago.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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