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Cubs' interests far afield from Pittsburgh

Ownership busy negotiating ballpark renovations and president evaluating talent in June draft

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

10:20 PM CDT, April 3, 2013

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PITTSBURGH — No, you couldn't have gone ice fishing Wednesday in Pittsburgh. That season has come and gone.

It's time for baseball, even if it didn't seem like it at PNC Park, along the banks of the Allegheny River. After a pitch shattered his bat, Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' golden ticket, danced around in pain, shaking his hands like someone had slammed them in a car door. And this was in batting practice with bullpen coach Heberto Andrade pitching.

Imagine how those hands were going to feel when the game began, with the sun going down and the temperature at 35 and falling.

"When you're in the batter's box, you don't know it's really that cold,'' said Cubs manager Dale Sveum, who spent much of his career in the Brewers' early-season icebox, County Stadium. "Your hands might feel it. It's more about your eyes watering.''

Blurry vision wasn't the problem for Cub fans when they looked at the lineup against Pirates left-hander Wandy Rodriguez. Sveum simply loaded up on right-handed hitters, giving Dave Sappelt, Scott Hairston, Brent Lillibridge and Alberto Gonzalez starts.

Welcome to Game 2 of 162, a 3-0 loss to the Pirates, in a season that probably won't be judged successful based on how many games Sveum's team wins and losses. Not surprisingly, President Theo Epstein was needed elsewhere.

He hung around Pittsburgh only as long as required, leaving shortly after Monday's 3-1 victory to spend Tuesday in the office and Wednesday in Georgia, evaluating high school talent for the June draft. Assistant general manager Randy Bush was the front office presence to witness Edwin Jackson's Cubs debut, which began auspiciously. He used his gravity-defying slider to strike out the side in the first inning.

If only Chairman Tom Ricketts and his ballpark point man, Mike Lufrano, were being as efficient in their talks with Wrigleyville Ald. Thomas Tunney, 44th, which continue as if Monday wasn't really a deadline at all. Not that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is surprised. He never bought into Ricketts family's time frame, and at the end of the day, Emanuel is the guy who is going to get this deal done.

In all their previous battles with Tunney and the rooftop owners he represents, the Cubs could count on getting minimal support from City Hall. Richard M. Daley began his first term as mayor in 1989, a charmed year for the Cubs until Will Clark appeared in October, but he was a one-team guy, and the Cubs weren't his team.

Emanuel works both sides of the baseball street. He would like the Cubs to get most (if not all) of the things on their laundry lists of improvements — the giant video screen, the increased night games and concerts and maybe even some streets closed during games as Boston does for the Red Sox outside Fenway Park — as Ricketts is spending his own money, not the city's. Tunney wants the Cubs to build a parking garage on land it owns north of the ballpark.

There's a deal to be made here, even with Epstein keeping his distance. His focus is finding another Jackie Bradley Jr.

Bradley, in only his second full pro season, hit his way into the Red Sox's lineup and showed remarkable poise by drawing three walks in his big-league debut. The Red Sox took him with the 40th pick overall in the 2011 draft, which was their last that Epstein ran.

Heading to watch high school players Wednesday, Epstein said he still can't believe the University of South Carolina center fielder dropped so far after being viewed as a top-10 pick entering his junior season. He said he's as happy for Amiel Sawdaye, whom Epstein promoted to scouting director in 2010, as well as for Bradley.

"The things that stood out the most with Bradley were his defensive instincts, his offensive approach and his makeup — all of which were top of the scouting scale,'' Epstein wrote in an email. "His ability to read the ball off the bat and go to the spot made him the rare player who can be a true impact defensive center fielder while being just an average or slightly above average runner.''

Epstein thinks Albert Almora, the Cubs' first pick in 2012, has many of the same skills. High school outfielders Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows belong in the same discussion. That's why scouting directors and GMs are spending so much time in Georgia this spring.

While getting approval for the five-year Wrigley renovation is the club's top off-the-field priority, it's the upcoming draft — not the 25-man roster on the field — that will dominate Epstein's time for the next two months. He will be at Wrigley for Monday's home opener against the Brewers. Like you, he hopes not to need gloves and a ski mask.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers