9:44 PM CST, December 4, 2012
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A friend was at Wrigley Field recently, picking out a location for his 2013 season tickets. He was struck by the abundance of choices.
"Man, they have a ton of unclaimed seats this year,'' he said. "Attendance will be a big story this year.''
So it would seem. But if the Cubs are under any pressure to appeal to their fan base, you sure can't tell it by the way they are responding to the 101-loss ugliness that was the 2012 season.
In fact, as they essentially ignore top free agents for the second year in a row, you almost think they want to be just as bad next year … and if that's what you think, you are right.
I asked ESPN's John Kruk if the Cubs actually could be worse in '13, given that it took a career-high 108 RBIs from Alfonso Soriano and strong efforts from the departed Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm to get those 61 victories.
"Oh, yeah,'' Kruk said. "They could. But who cares? They have a plan and when it's time they're going to throw a lot of money at it.''
This is not the time, of course. You know that by the way you are not seeing the Cubs pursue the likes of Michael Bourn and Shane Victorino, let alone Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton.
Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer says baseball's winter meetings are "a free agent shopping mart.'' And while there are at least two holes to fill in Dale Sveum's lineup — one in the outfield, another at third base — it hasn't been evident that President Theo Epstein and Hoyer are wearing them out trying to beat other teams to the likes of Ichiro Suzuki, Ryan Sweeney, Nate Schierholtz, Grady Sizemore, Eric Chavez and Jeff Keppinger.
Those guys would all plug holes, and one or two of them eventually may sign to play at Wrigley. But for a Cubs' management team focused on 2015 and beyond, all players in the 28-and-older age group seem like interchangeable parts subject to being traded after a few good months, not essential items.
At this point in the Cubs' rebuild, with the focus on players who need fake IDs to get a drink, the winter meetings are more the week for due diligence and fake hustle than a real crunch time. Those come in June (the amateur draft) and July (the start of the international signing period and the non-waiver trade deadline).
As for the upcoming season, well, maybe manager Dale Sveum can pull off a miracle — although frankly I wonder if he would be rewarded or fired for a .500 season, costing the Cubs spots in next year's draft.
"You know, you have a hand you're dealt and you go with it and all that, but … patience is what it is,'' Sveum said. "… We're all in this to get to the big dance and obviously get to the World Series. But putting a team together is Theo and Jed's job, and it's my job to do the best I can with the players I have.''
When a reporter asked Hoyer if he would be disappointed with another 100-loss season, he tiptoed out to the edge of the ledge that he and Epstein live on while sacrificing short-term benefits for the best chance to win in future seasons.
"To answer that question differently,'' Hoyer began, before pausing. "Because I certainly don't want to answer that question directly.''
No, he probably doesn't. But later on Hoyer came close to answering it indirectly, pointing to the success that teams like the Nationals and Rays are enjoying after extended stretches of bleakness.
Those teams piled up cornerstone guys Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Evan Longoria and David Price while averaging 99.3 losses over a three-year period (the 2008-10 Nationals) and 98.3 losses over a seven-year period (the 2001-07 Rays). Hoyer didn't mention the Tigers, but they have Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera (via a trade with the Marlins) to show for averaging 100.4 losses in 2001-05.
Like the owners and executives that run all three of these teams, Epstein and Hoyer maintain strong relationships with agent Scott Boras, who told The Washington Post last summer that "(GM Mike) Rizzo and I put this team together.'' The Cubs are positioning themselves for the same type bounce with Boras' "special'' talents, and the best chance of getting it is to collect minor-league talent for at least a couple of more years before they "pounce'' on the market, to borrow a word Epstein used Monday.
It's a good plan, even if it brings a hidden benefit for the fans who are willing to go the distance. More good seats are becoming available all the time.
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