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Theo Epstein’s major remodeling of Cubs raises red flags

The Chicago Cubs front office staff (L-R) Senior Vice-President/Scouting Player Development JasMcLeod; Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts; President Baseball Operations Theo

The Chicago Cubs front office staff of (L-R) Senior Vice-President/Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod; Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts; and President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein have a chat on the field before Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo's debut as a Cub on June 26, 2012 at Wrigley Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 5, 2012 11:49AM

A year ago, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts stood in the Cubs’ dugout on the last day of the season and said his big-market club did not need to consider rebuilding.

“The fact is, you get the right players on the team and they all stay healthy and they play hard, a team can go from 70 wins to 90 wins,” he said. “You can look at the Cubs a few years ago. I mean, things turn around fast.

“That’s the way we look at it for next year.’’

Then he hired Theo Epstein to rebuild the organization. He maintained the third-highest ticket prices in the game. And he presided over the third-worst season in franchise history. Along the way, the new front office became increasingly “transparent’’ in its willingness to sacrifice the present for the promise of “sustained success’’ in the future.

“They’ve sold you guys a bill of goods,’’ agent Scott Boras said.

Boras obviously has his own agenda when it comes to any team’s business ­practices. But his larger point was, “There’s no excuse for the Cubs to be in [fifth] place.’’

The 2012 season — Year 1 of the Epstein Era — mercifully closed with a 5-4 walk-off victory Wednesday against the Houston Astros at Wrigley Field. There were just 27,606 fans to say goodbye to a 101-loss team — putting the season attendance at 2,882,756, the lowest at Wrigley since 2002.

They started looking ahead to 2013 by firing third-base coach Pat Listach after the game.

Forget the white W flag and the blue L flag. This season raised plenty of red flags.

The lingering question: Where do the Cubs go from here?

If nothing else, the front office has embraced a historically significant — and perhaps unnecessary — road to its promised land of eventual “sustained success.’’

No big-market, big-revenue team in the majors has undergone an intentional youth-driven, multiyear rebuilding process in the free-agency era.

“Big-market clubs have a tough time telling fans they’re in a rebuilding [phase],” said Bob Gebhard, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ vice president and special assistant who spent championship years with the Minnesota Twins and St. Louis Cardinals. “When I was with St. Louis, we could never openly say we were rebuilding because of the fan base.’’

To their credit, the Cubs’ top execs have been increasingly transparent — from pursuing discount free agents in the offseason to the roster-churn of big-leaguers for prospects at the trade deadline to the willingness to finish among the worst if they can’t finish first to assure higher draft picks.

“We’re not trying to hide the ball,” Epstein said in the final days of the season. “We’re trying to be honest with [the fans]. There might be some tough things we have to tell them along the way. There might be another trade deadline in our future where we trade away about 40 percent of a really good rotation.’’

The idea, he has said repeatedly, is to build a strong and steady pipeline of homegrown players that will assure that “sustained success,” supplemented only then by flexing the big-market muscle to add any lacking piece or two needed to get over the top in a given year.

For the customer being asked to pay an average of $46.30 for a ticket — especially those who bought in the afterglow of Epstein’s hiring last fall — it’s a risky proposition.

Nobody disputes that Epstein is a smart baseball executive with a strong track record; and the wisdom of building through the farm system is so widely embraced that every organization in baseball claims to be doing it.

“Even the Yankees, although they’ve gone out and cherry-picked good talent, they’ve always had a [Derek] Jeter, [Jorge] Posada — the core,’’ said Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who played in four World Series and could be poised this month to manage in a second. “You can’t just buy 25 guys.’’

Which raises this issue: There’s no apparent reason to resist spending on some competitive players (read: starting pitchers) unless it’s to cannibalize the big-league side to accelerate the growth on the minor-league side.

Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer, scouting boss Jason McLeod and the rest of the front office knew amateur-signing restrictions were coming when they took their jobs, but it wasn’t until they settled into their new offices that they learned how draconian the draft and international free-agent spending limits would be.

By their own accounts, the Cubs expected to spend more than $20 million on over-slot talent deep in the draft — as Epstein and Hoyer had in Boston and San Diego before. But MLB capped the Cubs’ draft allotment at less than $9 million — under penalty of lost future picks. And limits on international signings went into effect in July, just after they inked Jorge Soler to that nine-year, $30 million deal.

Bottom line: Ricketts has repeatedly said that the baseball operations budget as a percentage of the overall budget would not be cut, leaving the baseball boss the flexibility to allot it toward amateurs, scouting capital or major-league payroll.

The Cubs’ payroll was deceptive this season because of outstanding obligations related to long-gone players such as Carlos Pena, Carlos Silva, Marlon Byrd and Carlos Zambrano.

But the Cubs have freed up more than $50 million in payroll obligations into 2013, at a time they’re no longer allowed to spend Soler money on amateurs and a year after they made one-time capital investments in such scouting/development tools as a fleet of cars for scouts, cameras at minor-league ballparks, hand-held equipment and computers for scouts and a proprietary software system to manage the information.

Cubs officials have said throughout the year that the system was worse off than originally thought (evaluators outside the organization offer mixed opinions on that). And they don’t have any plans to go all in yet on a push to be competitive — despite Hoyer’s recent assertion of an “aggressive’’ search for free-agent pitching this offseason.

“We have a plan and a vision, and it’s not going to happen overnight,’’ Epstein said. “There’s a choice: You can take a Band-Aid approach to things and try to polish it up as best we can and make that presentable and squeeze every last fan we can in and deal with [improving] next year. Or say, ‘We want to do this right no matter how tough it is.’

“Obviously, we want to make this right no matter how long it takes.’’

But the next obvious question to the fan: How do you feel about buying that season ticket right now? Current season-ticket holders received renewal notices this week — the day after the Cubs suffered their 100th loss.

Consider, too, that if economist Andrew Zimbalist’s estimate of the Cubs’ value at $1.2 billion is correct, that puts the Ricketts family at or close to full equity (counting a more than $400 million down payment).

And with the recent renewals of national TV deals involving three networks, every team in baseball will get roughly $25 million more in average national TV revenue starting in 2014 — just about the time the Cubs’ local contract with WGN expires.

“All the [regional] deals are a little different, but they all got richer, and the bigger the market, the richer they are,’’ said Astros new owner Jim Crane, an early bidder for the Cubs whose club is undergoing a similar rebuilding process. “Eventually you’ve got to win some games or these fans are going to go away.’’

The Cubs dropped by about 135,000 in attendance this season — more than $6 million at the average ticket price — with more losses at the gate expected in 2013.

Between the TV-revenue increases and the anticipated addition next season of 56 premium seats behind home plate, some, if not all, of those losses figure to be offset soon.

Even manager Dale Sveum talks about the offseason with hope, even joking about his “Christmas list’’ of CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.

“We have the resources to [be aggressive],’’ he said. “How much money to spend, that’s not my field.’’

The short-term decisions have led to a scenario in which the Cubs have intentionally decreased the chances the team reaches the playoffs at exactly the time MLB has improved the odds of everyone in the National League by adding a playoff berth and removing a team (Houston).

Plus, it comes at a time the Cubs have their hand out to the city seeking public money to renovate Wrigley Field.

“That owner is sitting on a Mount Vesuvius of money,’’ Boras said.

What he and the front office chooses to do with it figures to have more to say about next season than anything Sveum, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija do combined.

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