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Cubs’ debt situation figures to affect free-agent plans

The Cubs have had an 8 percent drop average attendance this seaswhich equates about 3000 fewer fans per game. |

The Cubs have had an 8 percent drop in average attendance this season, which equates to about 3,000 fewer fans per game. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 24, 2011 12:23AM

ST. LOUIS — As the Cubs opened a brutal road trip Friday against the hated and envied Cardinals — this time passing on the Albert Pujols hug — the larger point was being missed back home in the pissing match over whether Bud Selig cares about the enormous debt the Ricketts family still carries after buying the team in 2009.

A source with first-hand knowledge of the Cubs’ purchase deal and debt structure says it involves enough annual burden that fans shouldn’t count on the Cubs going after any big free agents for two or three years.

That’s consistent with the message chairman Tom Ricketts has pounded for the past year and a half — emphasizing the importance of player development in select speaking environments but shying away from less controlled media interviews.

Recent attempts, including Friday, to reach him on multiple issues regarding the team and its immediate future were unsuccessful.

For Cub fans who spent significant parts of the past decade sensing the team was on the verge of finally breaking through that century of misery, the reality could be especially bitter — especially in the face of new gold- and platinum-level ticket-price structures and another effort by ownership to go after public money for Wrigley renovations.

What you see so far this year —specifically, what you saw Friday with a no-name lineup of prospects and fill-ins — might be here to stay longer than the already restless fan base might be able to stomach.

As one longtime talent evaluator said before Friday’s game, “Just saw your lineup. Who are these guys?’’

Get used to it.

While it may be true that the Cubs are technically not in compliance with Major League Baseball’s debt-service rules — one of nine such teams, according to a Los Angeles Times report — that’s nothing.

Both the team and commissioner Bud Selig said publicly Friday that the Cubs’ debt issues are unique (because of the sale) and not considered a problem with MLB.

But unless their improved farm system takes an even more dramatic upturn in the next few months, that $400-million debt — give or take $100 million – could turn into a real problem with the bigger authorities.

The fans.

If they think that 8-percent drop in average attendance so far (about 3,000 a game from last year) is worth a few sweaty palms, wait until it turns into an all-out youth movement again if the team continues to swoon into July.

``I know nobody wants to be in that position,’’ said Aramis Ramirez, whose $14.6 million salary is one of several big chunks of payroll that fall off the books after this season (minus the $2 million buyout on next year’s option). ``You want to be able to win now and do all you can do. … But I’m not really the guy to ask.’’

The last time the team looked this lost on the field, in 2006, big, empty sections of bleachers started becoming an everyday sight late in the season.

And Tribune Company ownership answered with a $300 million spending spree – albeit, with an eye toward curb appeal anticipating a sale and knowing that the next guy would pay the bill.

Problem is, the fans are the ones stuck in the middle – if not stuck with that bill.

Because even as the Cubs continue to rank among the top teams in baseball in ticket prices and even as they work, for now, with the biggest payroll in the National League, they have essentially become a small-market operator.

Certainly, the Cubs’ player development system has improved – at least in producing position players – over the past five seasons under scouting director Tim Wilken. Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney are the best current examples.

But the rest of the young guys on display have a long way to go to prove themselves. That includes Tyler Colvin, who has taken a step back since his 20-homer rookie season, and second-round pick DJ LeMahieu who’s here because of injuries but probably at least a year away from contributing.

Meanwhile, former first-round pick Josh Vitters has continued to struggled through the middle levels of the minors. And beyond top prospect Brett Jackson – who could be up here any day at this rate – the pipeline doesn’t seem to be running fast enough for an all-out youth movement right now.

Even on the pitching side, the Cubs’ fastest rising prospect this season, Robert Whitenack, had a possible 2011 callup ruined by Tommy John surgery this week. And that pitching depth at AAA Iowa? The I-Cubs rank last in the PCL in pitching.

Talk about seeing red.


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