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Cubs' rebuilding project may not end soon

CHICAGO – For anyone hoping the 2012 season represented the low point for baseball on the North Side, there are no such guarantees during a massive rebuilding process.

The Cubs’ 101-loss season, their first since 1966, is a painful reminder of how far the organization is from fielding a competitive team. This isn’t a franchise that’s one or two moves away from playing .500 ball let alone contend for the playoffs. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein acknowledged as much Thursday at Wrigley Field.

“I don’t know what that timetable is going to be,” Epstein said. “ … I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Don’t worry about 101 losses because we have a magic plan to win a World Series in 2013, it’s gonna happen, so be there now.’ That’s not the case. I think we’re trying to communicate that there is a plan, there is a vision.”

The Cubs feature a solid core of young players with infielders Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney while Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora continue developing in the minors.

But waiting around for prospects to finally reach the big leagues won’t excite a fan base which shelled out a lot of money to watch what amounted to, at times, a Triple-A team this season. However, don’t expect 2013 tickets prices to become more affordable. The Cubs have little incentive to lower their prices after drawing more than 2.8 million in 2012.

“The experience of coming to Wrigley is pretty special,” Epstein said. “It's hard to replicate. I think that has something to do with the ticket prices.”

With the dismal year behind them, the Cubs’ focus shifts to improving a talent-starved roster. Epstein and Co.’s No. 1 focus is bolstering the starting rotation through free agency. Scouring the free agent market isn’t ideal especially since Epstein does not foresee good value among available starting pitchers. The Cubs also could look for bullpen arms and help at third as they enter the offseason under the presumption that third baseman Josh Vitters and outfielder Brett Jackson will start the 2013 season at Triple-A Iowa.

“I've always believed and I still believe that the dollars you spend in major league free agency provide the lowest return on the investment of any dollars we spend in baseball operations,” Epstein said. “So you don't set out looking to spend all your money in free agency.”

One of Epstein’s more important offseason decisions centers around outfielder Alfonso Soriano. It’s not a sure thing he returns, and the Cubs will seriously consider trading him if teams inquire as long as any deal improves the organization. They aren’t looking to just dump Soriano and the remaining 2 years, $36 million of his contract, though, because the Cubs would need to take on most of the money owed. Another obstacle in moving Soriano: he holds the right to reject any trade.

Although Soriano turns 37 next year, he was their best offensive player, tallying 100-plus RBIs for the first time as a Cub, and his leadership and positive influence in a young clubhouse would be difficult to replace.

“Coming in here I actually had a little trepidation of how we would handle him and the contract and if his skills declined how we would handle playing time,” Epstein said. “I’ll be honest, it wasn’t something that I was really looking forward to. Those concerns proved to be completely baseless. What a pleasant surprise he turned out to be. He’s as great of a clubhouse guy I think as there is in the game.”

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