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Cubs’ apparent budgetary constraints stress need to find Next Big Thing

It seemed everyone Cubs Conventiduring weekend wanted bit Theo Epstein’s time. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

It seemed everyone at the Cubs Convention during the weekend wanted a bit of Theo Epstein’s time. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 17, 2012 8:20AM

For all the new faces, packed ballrooms, countless autographs and hours of banter between fans and Cubs people, the big thing about the Cubs Convention this year was, well, The Next Big Thing.

Whatever it turns out to be.

It’s what president Theo Epstein was brought in to identify, what is at the core of his staff’s efforts to redefine the Cubs’ baseball operations and what is likely to justify or deflate the three-day gush of hype and hope at the Chicago Hilton and Towers during the weekend.

‘‘It’s always there, looking for that next frontier of competitive advantage,’’ said Jason McLeod, Epstein’s top scouting and player-development executive.

Of course, what that new edge becomes is as unknown as most of the players the Cubs have acquired in this first, low-key winter under the new regime.

The Cubs are taking what they hope is a major step in finding it when they formally implement their new information-management software system Tuesday. Their entire scouting department is in town for meetings and training on the new system, which puts all the team’s scouting reports, video, statistical analytics and medical histories of players in one place.

‘‘This is a huge week for the organization,’’ McLeod said.

But amid all the energy, optimism and promises of ramped-up spending on scouting and modernized methods, a few puzzlers and mixed messages lingered after the convention closed Sunday.

For instance, a big-market team that just committed $3.5 million a year to a newly created position of president of baseball operations, that created several other high-level front-office jobs and that’s assured of trimming tens of millions of dollars from its big-league payroll this season is pulling a Marge Schott on its scouting staff this week to save relative pennies.

Borrowing a page from the notoriously cheap former Cincinnati Reds owner, the Cubs assigned their scouts two-to-a-room hotel accommodations this week and advised using the L instead of cabs, including to and from airports with their luggage, sources said.

And how did the Kerry Wood signing last week reach such a point of contentiousness? What took so long for the Cubs to agree to a deal that ended up costing them $3 million for one year, plus a club option, especially when Wood made it clear he wasn’t interested in going anywhere else?

‘‘In the end, it works out great,’’ said chairman Tom Ricketts, who acknowledged the deal probably could have been done sooner. ‘‘This is exactly what everybody wanted — every fan, everybody in the organization and also Kerry.’’

Whether any of this apparent budget-obsessed thinking is related to a Sun-Times report in June about how debt connected to the purchase of the team might affect club spending, the Cubs won’t say. More specifically, they repeatedly have denied any correlation.

Certainly, it would make efforts to find the next big competitive advantage even more important as the Cubs strip down their big-league roster and try to rebuild their organization from the bottom up.

‘‘We’d be doing the organization a disservice if we weren’t up on the most cutting-edge stats and analysis,’’ general manager Jed Hoyer told fans during the weekend. ‘‘And we’re always trying to find that next thing that’s going to be the breakthrough. .  .  . Someone’s going to find something that changes the game again. We want to be the team to find that.’’

McLeod said that’s what makes Epstein the ideal leader for the process.

‘‘It’s something that’s inbred in Theo,’’ McLeod said. ‘‘I don’t think he knows what the word ‘stagnant’ means. As soon as you start feeling comfortable with how things are running, he’s asking you why we aren’t trying other things. .  .  . It’s just a constant thirst and quest to be better and to push the envelope. It’s in his DNA, and it filters down to all of us.’’

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