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If season so far is barometer, rebuilding Cubs may take long time

CHICAGO IL - APRIL 05: Chicago Cubs WashingtNationals during opening day game Wrigley Field April 5 2012 Chicago Illinois.

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 05: of the Chicago Cubs of the Washington Nationals during the opening day game at Wrigley Field on April 5, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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A quarter of the way through the season, the 2012 Cubs are on pace to break the franchise records for losses and worst winning percentage (shared by the 1962 and ’66 teams). Only eight Cubs teams have lost as many as 95 games in a season, and only eight have had winning percentages lower than .400. How the 2012 team compares with the 95-game losers:

  Year W-L Pct (Place) Next year’s results

2012 15-29 .341 (6th of 6) --- --- ---

1966 59-103 .364 (10th of 10) 87-74 .540 (3/10)

1962 59-103 .364 (9/10) 82-80 .506 (7/10)

1980 64-98 .395 (6/6) 38-65* .369 (6/6)

2000 65-97 .401 (6/6) 88-74 .543 (3/6)

2006 66-96 .407 (6/6) 85-77 .525 (1/6)

1974 66-96 .407 (6/6) 75-87 .463 (5/6)

2002 67-95 .414 (5/6) 88-74 .543 (1/6)

1999 67-95 .414 (6/6) 65-97 .401 (6/6)

   *-Strike-shortened season

Updated: July 3, 2012 9:15AM

HOUSTON — Cubs fans are
e-mailing sportswriters these days, asking for reasons to keep buying $80 tickets for the worst team in the major leagues.

The team’s chairman is in full-speed damage control with city
officials, trying to keep alive a nine-figure public-spending plan for Wrigley Field after his dad ticked off the mayor with a proposed political smear campaign against President Barack Obama.

And skeptics from other organizations are questioning whether the new ‘‘Cubs Way’’ under team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will work at all, one National League team official said.

Nobody said this was going to be easy. But could the new regime have imagined it would look like this two months into its first season at the helm?

It’s early, obviously, but the Cubs are on pace for their worst record in their 137-year history.

And based on the clusters of empty seats during their weekend series against the White Sox — and $14 ticket prices that could be found online — their run of eight consecutive seasons of drawing at least
3 million fans might be in jeopardy, despite an attendance pace slightly ahead of last season at this time.

Attendance is still the primary revenue-driving force for teams, and no amount of increased noodle revenue will offset a long decline in ticket-buying.

Whether the so-called honeymoon is over with an easily irked fan base isn’t nearly as relevant as how long the overhaul will last. And how much this cost of doing business actually might cost by the time the organization is rebuilt
according to the new guys’ vision — especially if that stadium funding that looked so imminent so recently goes back to square one.

But the mandate for the new
regime hasn’t changed, regardless of how much bigger the task at hand might seem now compared to November.

‘‘We’ve been transparent about the fact that we’re not looking for quick fixes or Band-Aids,’’ Epstein said by e-mail Wednesday. ‘‘We are trying to build a championship
organization from the ground up.

‘‘That means there will be periods at the big-league level that are difficult to go through. Unfortunately, we’re in a stretch like that right now. But the process of building the organization continues
behind the scenes, and it’s the type of work, if done right, that will help us get to a point where we are contending each and every year.’’

Epstein, in fact, was on a scouting trip Wednesday as the front office prepares for a draft in less than two weeks in which the Cubs hold the No. 6 overall pick.

And if things don’t get much better in terms of bottom-line
results this season, that’s probably not the worst outcome for the long-term picture, considering it might translate into an even higher pick and, presumably, an even better shot at adding an impact prospect to a depleted farm system.

For now, the prospects for the future involve shortstop Starlin Castro; right-hander Jeff
Samardzija, who produced six strong innings Wednesday; and slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who figures to be up from Class AAA Iowa sometime around the end of next month.

The culture change chairman Tom Ricketts and Epstein talked about trying to instill when the new front office took over last winter is showing signs of coming
under manager Dale Sveum and a strong, seasoned coaching staff.

But restocking the farm system — the way Epstein did in Boston to build a core of homegrown talent that played key roles on the 2007 World Series champions — is a far greater challenge than it looked like at the start of the offseason.

Since then, the new collective-bargaining agreement put a stop to the kind of over-slot spending that teams — especially higher-revenue teams — could do to add high-upside, tough-to-sign players by spending whatever they chose.

Strict limits on draft-bonus spending and international-free-agent spending have severely limited the means for a fast farm-system fix.

Even tougher is trying to stockpile compensation picks high in the draft through non-specific arbitration offers to eligible free agents. Compensation picks now come only after a high-range, specific-dollar offer to be determined through a formula.

For instance, it might take roughly a $12 million offer to free agent Ryan Dempster at the end of the season — and having him, in turn, decline the offer — for the Cubs to get a compensation pick for him. That increases the likelihood of trying to trade him this season for a return that might not be nearly as valuable as a supplemental first-round draft pick.

‘‘That might affect it a little bit,’’ said Houston Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie, who was drafted by the Epstein regime in Boston. ‘‘But Theo always seemed to be a pretty creative guy when it came to contracts or other things. So I’m sure he’ll find a way to get the job done.’’

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