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Sex allegations against Starlin Castro cast pall on Cubs Convention

Cubs baserunner StarlCastro is called out trying steal third base fifith inning as Chicago Cubs host PhiladelphiPhillies Monday July 18

Cubs baserunner Starlin Castro is called out trying to steal third base in the fifith inning as the Chicago Cubs host the Philadelphia Phillies Monday July 18, 2011 at Wrigley Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 13, 2012 9:26AM

On the eve of the Cubs’ annual festival of optimism at the downtown Hilton, the Kool-Aid is in scarce supply.

For the first time in recent memory, the big-league roster has been stripped down of veteran players in a youth-centric overhaul that figures to make 2012 yet another transition year.

And then, just in time for Cubs Convention this weekend, came revelations last week that the face of the team’s new era, All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro, remains under investigation for an alleged sexual assault three months ago.

Neither Theo the Savior nor Sveumer the Tatted Tough Guy is a strong-enough force to refill the Kool-Aid jugs.

In fact, we may find out just how powerful their marketing draw is sooner than later. Sources say early 2012 marketing campaigns that were expected to focus heavily on Castro have shifted to other team personnel, including the new manager, Dale Sveum.

Castro hasn’t been charged with a crime, his attorneys have vehemently denied any wrongdoing and, privately, others familiar with the early part of the investigation suggest he’ll avoid charges.

But regardless of the outcome, the mere allegations certainly will stick to his public persona at least into the season, casting a cloud over the Cubs’ efforts to put on a best face for 2012.

‘‘I don’t really know the details of it, but I don’t think it’s going to affect him at all,’’ said Sveum, who met Castro for about an hour the day he got the managing job in November but said he was unaware of the allegations at that time.

Back-to-back fifth-place finishes and a six-man set of starting pitchers that includes one guy who had a winning record last year (Randy Wells, 7-6) don’t help things much.

Not that the Cubs inspired visions of greatness at last year’s convention. But even then, they offered the hope that came with a recent trade for Matt Garza, the passion that came with the return of Kerry Wood and the excitement promised by Castro’s second year in the big leagues.

This time around, Garza’s name is at the center of some trade rumors as the Cubs’ brass denies shopping him. Wood still hadn’t agreed to a 2012 contract through Wednesday amid obvious disagreement between the parties over his value to the organization. And Castro, well, nobody’s even willing to say much about the team’s top young star these days, much less tout his presence right now. But he still is scheduled to appear during the weekend’s events.

‘‘I don’t think this is the right time [to discuss the Castro allegations],’’ team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday, echoing the words of general manager Jed Hoyer last week.

But Epstein and Hoyer are sending clear messages about the importance of players’ images and conduct, to the degree that some in the organization privately wondered if Castro would be quickly traded should the allegations result in charges (or worse).

Epstein talked Wednesday about starting a rookie development program in Chicago next winter similar to what the Boston Red Sox had when he was the GM. It would stress expectations of the organization and ways to avoid common pitfalls off the field.

‘‘When you have a lot of young players at the big-league level,’’ Epstein said, ‘‘oftentimes you forget just how new they are to this whole thing — professional baseball — and the responsibility that comes with it, the importance of representing the organization the right way and being a good teammate, knowing how to handle the media and knowing how to handle themselves in the community. Organizations that just assume they’ll figure it out on their own make a big mistake.’’

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