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MLB commentary: Epstein not interested in middle ground

MESA, Ariz. — A persistent father leaned into the Cubs dugout Tuesday at Hohokam Stadium to get Theo Epstein’s attention.

For several minutes of excruciating detail, the man asked Epstein’s advice in dealing with a son struggling to make his baseball team. Practicing what he preaches to fans, Epstein patiently listened to someone out there who still thought the Cubs president had all the answers.

“I’d like to help, but I don’t know the situation,’’ Epstein said politely.

Refreshingly, Epstein knows what he doesn’t know. He won’t predict how a 2013 season he framed as playoffs-or-sell-off will unfold.

But he will share his pragmatic plan, in case it unravels.

“What I want to avoid is the middle ground,’’ Epstein said. “It’d be nice to make the playoffs or get a protected draft pick [awarded the bottom nine teams]. We’re not hiding that. There’s no glory in 78 wins instead of 73. Who cares?

“We’re going to see where we are and take a real cold assessment in the middle of the season.”

Consider yourself warned, Wrigleyville. If you thought last September was bad, this could look worse.

If you believed in baseball Theocracy when the Cubs hired Epstein in October 2011, nothing has shaken that belief. Not 101 losses. Not dumping Ryan Dempster or delays in Wrigley renovation.

Epstein still has the right answers, because he asks the essential question nobody in charge ever dared: Why not try building a winner from the bottom up by revamping the minor league system? If anything changed about Epstein since he arrived in Chicago billed as the savior, it might be the 39-year-old becoming less guarded and even more introspective as he embraces the city’s “Midwestern sensibility.’’

That term came up during an easygoing conversation in which Epstein explained why Cubs fans readily accept sacrificing seasons in the name of winning in 2015. Why can Epstein get away with placing minor league development ahead of major league success in a major market?

“We’re being transparent, and they’re responding by giving back faith, belief and energy,’’ Epstein said.

Baseball America ranks four Cubs prospects among the game’s top 100. One baseball executive projected the Cubs could have six by next spring. Most days, Epstein watching video of minor leaguers in search of the next Starlin Castro or Anthony Rizzo.

Apparently, trading for Rizzo, a former Red Sox draft pick, represented one of two things every new executive does after taking over a team.

“Typically, they make a pretty good trade with a player they’re familiar with and, two, they screw up a trade because they won’t have the first-hand knowledge [of] some players in their own organization,’’ Epstein said. “We definitely did that.’’

The rare mistake came in December 2011, when he traded outfielder Tyler Colvin and infielder D.J. LeMahieu to the Rockies. Another came when the Cubs left Ryan Flaherty unprotected in the Rule 5 draft. The Orioles signed him, and the second baseman started in the playoffs.

“We fell into some familiar traps,’’ Epstein said.

They will fall some more. But the encouraging difference in Epstein’s regime is he focuses less about the Cubs getting up than staying on top once they do.

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