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Cubs took step forward by standing pat

Albert Pujols’ decisispurn Cardinals’ millions for Angels’ millions should make things little easier Cubs. | Jeff Roberson~AP

Albert Pujols’ decision to spurn the Cardinals’ millions for the Angels’ millions should make things a little easier on the Cubs. | Jeff Roberson~AP

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Updated: January 10, 2012 8:28AM

DALLAS — It looked more like a secret baseball lab than the suite of a general manager spending a few days in the Dallas area.

There was a table with ice and every caffeine drink one could imagine near the door to the room. Across the way, there was an even larger table that featured seven — count ’em, seven — laptops, each with the screen tipped forward or closed, letting any visitors know the work done on them wasn’t for their eyes to see.

Then there was the big board, a white board with a large white cloth hurriedly thrown over it, hiding secrets. Cubs secrets.

So while new president of baseball operations Theo Epstein was talking Yale-speak about first baseman Carlos Pena’s future and ‘‘where we are in our cycle may not fit,’’ all that was racing through my mind was, ‘‘What could be written on that damn board?’’

Was it a list of names in the Cubs’ system that Epstein and his brain trust have deemed untouchable? Was it a list of potential targets on other teams? Was it simply a stick-figure drawing of White Sox general manager Ken Williams in funny glasses and a mustache and the words ‘‘Soxtown .  .  . ha, ha, ha’’ written under it?

By the time the winter meetings ended Thursday, those secrets would have to die on that board. The Cubs were crickets, making noise from a distance on several big-name players but growing dead silent when inspected more closely.

Albert a big-time departure

And maybe for now the perfect move was not making one.

Sure, it would have been nice for the new regime to make a big splash. But what the meetings showed was the Cubs’ — and Epstein’s — patience.

The Cubs are already better even without making a major move, thanks in large part to Albert Pujols leaving the
St. Louis Cardinals and joining the Los Angeles Angels.

The 10-year, $254 million deal Pujols struck with the Angels was stunning in many ways, mainly because the feeling around the meetings was that he was headed back to the Cardinals. Then the Angels came in and swept him off his feet with all that cash and a no-trade clause, instantly making the Cubs’ pitching better.

‘‘You get a young pitcher up there, and he’s working on his third pitch, working on his fastball command, you’re telling him to get ahead, [throw] strike one,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘All of a sudden, instead of a Triple-A hitter, he’s got Albert Pujols up there hitting a mistake that leaves the park and goes 420 [feet] to right-center field. .  .  . It’s probably not good for his confidence as far as his development.’’

Laying the foundation

Signings will come. If not this offseason, then next. There will be a time when Epstein is the one making the splash that the Angels and Miami Marlins made this week.

But there is still business going on, business that includes strengthening the Cubs’ player-development system before the weight of big-ticket items is thrown on top of it.

‘‘You have two choices when you come to a new place: You either rely on the people here and make a decision to try and move the organization forward by getting some things done, or you decide you’re too scared to do anything because you don’t have certainty with the evaluations and end up doing nothing,’’ Epstein said.

‘‘The best way to approach it is to get everyone together [and] talk through it. Understand you don’t know the players as well as someone here. Understand you may miss on some guys. Show a little courage. And if things make sense, you move the organization forward.’’

That’s where the Cubs are now, inching forward. It’s a process — and not an overnight one.

But I still would love to know what exactly was on that board.

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