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2013 Cubs were a losing supposition

4-12-2010--Cubs--Milwaukee Brewers home opener---Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts prepares hoff ball Slugfamily for ceremonial first pitch. Sun-Times phoby Tom Cruze

4-12-2010--Cubs--Milwaukee Brewers home opener---Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts prepares to hand off the ball to the Sluga family for the ceremonial first pitch. Sun-Times photo by Tom Cruze

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Updated: September 3, 2013 6:10PM

Is it acceptable for a team to purposely lose games to get a higher draft pick?

That was a topic on Comcast SportsNet Chicago last week, and it was “inspired’’ by the White Sox, who were suddenly winning games after spending more than four months being godawful. If they were going to be bad, the idea went, they might as well be really, really bad to help themselves in the draft.

Most of us on the “Sports-Talk Live’’ panel said tanking was morally wrong, but host David Kaplan suggested that if the 1997 Bears had concentrated on it, Peyton Manning might be in his 16th season with the organization.

We suggested right back that, given their innate Bear-ness, they would have taken Ryan Leaf in the ’98 draft.

A much more interesting question deals with the Cubs: How do you feel about a major-market team knowingly going into a season with a small-market roster and making no apologies for it? Isn’t that, at the very least, a cousin of tanking? I’m not suggesting that Cubs manager Dale Sveum or any of his players have ever purposely tried to lose a game. But they went into the season without the weapons to compete.

Even though management said it would wait until June or July before it decided on whether to add or subtract from the payroll, anyone with an idea of what good baseball is supposed to look like knew there was no chance of the club doing anything but losing spectacularly.

At least in the past they appeared to be trying to win.

To be clear, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and his staff did not set out to lose on purpose. But under the financial constraints placed upon them by team chairman Tom Ricketts, the losing was inevitable right from the start.

And that, friends, is how the Cubs became the first big-market team in history to go into a season admitting it wasn’t going to win. That is usually the territory of Pittsburgh or Kansas City. And that’s why the Cubs are a lot closer to the terrible Marlins, whom they lost to Monday, than to the Cardinals, who always seem to field winning teams.

Whether you believe in Epstein and his plan doesn’t change the fact that the Cubs told their fan base they were going to serve thin gruel, then started spooning it out. If there’s no payoff on the immediate horizon, the franchise should reward its long-suffering fans with lower ticket prices next year.

I doubt that’s going to happen, not while ownership is wrestling with a bear of a debt load.

Forbes magazine recently reported that the dreadful Astros are on pace to make almost $100 million, thanks, in part, to a lucrative local TV contract. A few days later, it ran another story refuting the original article. Whatever the truth, what struck me was how similar the Astros and Cubs are. Like the Rickettses, Astros owner Jim Crane is trying to pay down the huge debt he took on when he bought the franchise. He vows that once he finishes replenishing what has been a weak minor-league system, he’ll start adding to the big-league payroll. Sound familiar?

The difference, of course, is that the Cubs are a major-market team and have a responsibility to act like one. Houston might be in the top five in terms of population but not when it comes to baseball pedigree.

The Cubs will be looking for a big TV contract of their own. They are opting out of their deal with WGN after the 2014 season with a large payday in mind. And they should get it. The Dodgers have a tentative 25-year, $8.5 billion agreement with Time Warner Cable, with $2 billion of it going to Major League Baseball revenue sharing. Their ownership group said it would be able to afford to hand two players $200 million contracts each — one likely going to pitcher Clayton Kershaw — as well as throw $100 million into its stadium, if necessary.

Given what we’ve seen from the Ricketts family, how can anyone be convinced that ownership will ever throw big money like that at the major-league product?

The Cubs’ $104 million payroll ranks 14th among 30 teams, which, if this were college basketball, would make them Ball State.

You fans knew there was going to be pain before there was gain. But did you know it was going to hurt this much?

In the meantime, how about those Pirates?

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