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Using Brewers as model, time right for Cubs to try youth movement

Cubs hitter Aramis Ramirez smacks two-run double sixth inning as Chicago Cubs take Cincinnati Reds Wednesday September 7 2011 Wrigley

Cubs hitter Aramis Ramirez smacks a two-run double in the sixth inning as the Chicago Cubs take on the Cincinnati Reds Wednesday September 7, 2011 at Wrigley Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 26, 2011 12:28AM

After his first season as general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, team ownership offered to increase Doug Melvin’s payroll by 12 percent, to $45 million.

Melvin’s response: “Let’s go to $28 million.’’

By stripping it down, Melvin opened the door wide open in 2004 for kids from the farm system. The Brewers also finished last in the National League Central that year.

But Corey Hart debuted that year, and Prince Fielder and J.J. Hardy followed the next year, with Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo in 2007.

By the time the Cubs took the field against Cincinnati on Wednesday night, the $84 million Brewers had a 231/2-game lead over the $134 million Cubs, and were looking ahead at a weekend series against Philadelphia featuring the top two teams in the National League.

The Cubs headed into the weekend looking, of course, for a new GM and a new direction.

One of the bigger questions being raised these days around here, with all the change-of-regime anticipation and player-development focus — especially in the context of farm director Oneri Flieta’s extension — is whether the Cubs will try that strip-down/rebuild approach?

And can they afford to?

Can they even attempt a modified version without alienating a loyal but disgruntled fan base already shelling out the third-highest ticket costs in the majors?

“Chicago is not Milwaukee. This is a different market,’’ said Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez —whose continued presence on the North Side after this season might be the first and most definitive wind sock for the Cubs’ 2012 roster intentions.

He has a $16 million team option for next year ($2 million buyout), and then has opt-out rights if the team exercises it. Until Jim Hendry was fired as GM, Ramirez expected to return, possibly on a renegotiated extension.

Now he has no idea. And the guy in charge of the Cubs’ side of that equation hasn’t even been hired yet.

If the Cubs go the way of the Brewers and other smaller-market success stories, Wednesday’s lineup — which included DJ LeMahieu at second and Tuesday’s temporary hero, Bryan LaHair, in right — might have offered a glimpse of the future.

That is, if you, say, move LeMaheiu to third, put LaHair at first, insert Tyler Colvin in right field and add top prospect Brett Jackson in either left or center.

No Ramirez, no Carlos Pena, no Alfonso Soriano. …

No Fielder, no Albert Pujols. …

No problem?

Regular Wrigley Field patrons attending Wednesday’s game had mixed opinions on undergoing even a yearlong roster rebuilding process but seemed in general to be fans of some of the younger players with the team (which could explain in part the interest in paying to watch a pair of losing teams on a midweek night in September).

“They absolutely have to [go young],’’ said Anthony Ford, 32, of Johnsburg, who estimates he and his friend, Michael Hooper, have gone to about 20 games this season. “They’re not giving the young guys enough opportunity. Tony Campana’s our favorite player, and he’s filled with potential. You don’t know what he’s going to do at any given moment, and yet they put him in the bottom of the ninth to play outfield. Or maybe they’ll put him in as a pinch-runner. Doesn’t make sense.’’

Hooper, 30, insists he’ll still buy tickets and watch the Cubs during a youth movement.

“Absolutely,’’ he said.

Added Ford: “I’m not coming here to see Soriano, or [Kosuke] Fukudome, or even Pena for that matter. Come on.’’

But not everybody was on board with a youth movement.

“We want to see the team compete,’’ said Rich Reisman, 53, of Rogers Park, who goes to 30 to 40 games a year. “If we ended up going a few years trying to rebuild, I think they may lose a few fans, because people would lose interest. They need to compete every year. That’s really important.

“But,’’ he added, “You can go with some young players — and we have some good players in the system — but also go after a big free-agent pitcher, go after a big free-agent hitter like Prince Fielder. That’s the way to go.’’

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