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Cubs are in the ‘sixth inning’ of their managerial search

The Cubs are in “the sixth inning of the process’’ to hire a new manager, team president Theo Epstein told season ticketholders Thursday, saying the team wants someone who will handle a balanced team that will value defense, baseball fundamentals and work to score runs in a variety of ways.

At the same time, Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, the new vice president of scouting and player development, said they will work to identify “as many undervalued players in the [free-agent] market as possible’’ for the immediate future, with the goal of using free agency “to fill holes’’ instead of as “band aids for a farm system that isn’t producing.’’

In an hour-long question-answer telephone session with season ticketholders, the Cubs new brass fielded a range of questions, from the status of the farm system, the cramped player facilities at Wrigley Field and the future of the ball park itself to timetables for building their vision of a successful franchise.

During the exchange, the second held since Epstein was named team president more than two weeks ago, Epstein said the trio has been spending “18-hour days’’ at Wrigley Field. Their work has encompassed everything from analyzing the farm system, going through the managerial hiring process and learning “the culture’’ of the team.

“We have work to do’’ to upgrade the minor league talent level,’’ Epstein said. “I won’t sugarcoat it,’’ he said, adding there was a “pretty significant gap between where we are and where we want to be.’’

But they noted some of the team’s more promising players, including outfielder Brett Jackson and young Dominican shortstop prospect Junior Lake, could be budding prospects.

For the immediate future, the three said they will try to address the team’s most glaring deficiencies, defense and run production, and added the focus on defense has been a central part of the managerial interview process.

“We have to value defense. We have to make things a little easier for our pitchers,’’ Epstein said.

He did not say how long it will be before a manager is chosen, with three candidates already interviewed in Pete Mackanin, Dale Sveum and Mike Maddux and Cleveland Indians coach Sandy Alomar Jr. to interview on Friday. But he said, “we have to be able to play the game, and that means you can’t just sit back and wait [for a big inning]. Running, bunting, moving runners... we have to hire the right manager who emphasizes those things and also knows how to implement them--and also get the players who do that.’’

Asked how the Cubs might fill the middle order power gap if free agents Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena do not return, Epstein turned again to the matter of defense, saying the potential loss of power might be compensated for with a stronger defensive player. “We’re looking for complete players as much as possible,’’ he said.

All three said they want to embrace the history and culture of the team, Epstein pointing to a recent long sit-down with team icons Billy Williams and Ernie Banks, who described “what makes the organization tick and special. That was a special thing for me.

“Everyone you talk to wants to communicate that the Cubs are unique,’’ he said. “The day games, the city, the ball park, and not having won [a championship] for so long. We have to have empathy and get to feel what it’s like in your [fans] shoes,’’ he said. “Understand the history and appreciate it, but also move forward.’’

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