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Rogers: Awful season aside, Cubs on the right track

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012 9:55 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO (MCT) — Nineteen cents.

That’s what tickets in the third row of Section 533 were advertised at on StubHub on Monday afternoon. As for the rest of Wrigley Field, it looks like most of those tickets couldn’t be given away.

No surprise there, not with the Bears playing the Cowboys on “Monday Night Football.”

Here’s the odd part: The place had a good feeling. In fact, on some level, it felt better than U.S. Cellular Field did on Sunday, with the White Sox trying to hang on to their unexpected chance to win the American League Central.

The Cubs are ending 2012 against the only team they have outperformed, the Astros, yet Tony Campana was happily making like a whippet during batting practice. He must have covered 100 feet trying to get to one fly ball, while the crowd around the batting cage laughed and joked like kids on spring break.

Unlike many of their fans, these guys don’t measure the season by the standings. And they know they have a couple more seasons to get it together before they have to do the hard part, winning.

“(We’re) definitely going the right direction,” manager Dale Sveum said. “There are some growing pains with that, as well. We’re all confident in the plan Theo (Epstein), Jed (Hoyer) and their guys are putting together. We understand where we’ll get to. Sometimes it just takes some time, but we’re all confident in the procedures of it.”

You’ve got to walk before you can run, and even walking feels good when you’re used to being knee-capped this time of year. The Cubs have found a way to turn their losingest season since 1966 into a productive one.

They have done a lot more things right than you would suspect.

For instance:

They’ve found the right manager for the job.

Sveum has been steady as she goes from spring training through the trade-deadline dumping of talent and the September showcases. He just might still be on the job when the Cubs win their second postseason series since 1908, if not the World Series.

Sveum, given a three-year contract when Epstein hired him last November, has created a great atmosphere for players while serving as an extension of the front office.

They’ve identified some players who can be core guys for the long haul.

Anthony Rizzo, who came in a trade for Andrew Cashner, joins shortstop Starlin Castro and second baseman Darwin Barney (a .257 hitter, through Sunday, who really should win a Gold Glove). Jeff Samardzija (3.81 ERA, 1.22 WHIP over 1742/3 innings) looks to be a mid-rotation starter. James Russell, Shawn Camp and maybe Michael Bowden are long-term bullpen fits. Bryan LaHair can fit as a top reserve, if not a regular.

They’ve significantly improved the talent pipeline in the minors.

Baseball America’s recent ranking of the Northwest League was dominated by Cubs, with five — count ‘em, five — infielders making the top 20. That’s a great sign, especially since none of these guys was named Javier Baez, Jorge Soler or Albert Almora, who are widely considered the organization’s best prospects. The move to hire Jaron Madison as scouting director while signing Tim Wilken to a long-term contract underscored how serious Epstein is about doing what Curt Schilling said he did in Boston, building “a player development machine.”

They’ve shown they can make the toughest of decisions.

Epstein and Hoyer traded Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm on July 31, and, if they had their wish, also would have traded Matt Garza. His elbow injury sidelined him shortly before the deadline, so he’ll come back next spring (but could be gone by opening day if somebody pays the right price; Alfonso Soriano, Sveum’s 2012 MVP, might not be far behind him). The trade that brought power right-hander Arodys Vizcaino from the Braves for Maholm eventually may be viewed as a tipping point if he recovers from Tommy John surgery to reach his potential.

They’ve cleared a ton of money off the books, setting the stage to be a very serious player in free agency two or three years down the line.

Yes, two or three years.

Don’t be surprised if 2013 is a lot like this season. The highlight could come in June, when the Cubs select Arkansas’ Ryne Stanek, Stanford’s Mark Appel or another power pitcher with the second pick in the draft. But tickets won’t be 19 cents forever. You better get those while you can.

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