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Theo Epstein and the Cubs are primed to build on the buzz

MESA, Ariz. — Exactly 371 days earlier, Cubs president Theo Epstein sat in the same room explaining to many of the same people the virtues of keeping “our powder dry.”

That reference mostly was about the $20 million they banked for later use after missing out on Masahiro Tanaka, rather than spending it to improve a club that went on to lose 89 games and finish last.

But much of what Epstein talked about on that day has turned into hope that landed on the doorstep of this 2015 spring training. A great deal of the aforementioned “dry powder” was spent to transform a roster now in the hands of new celebrity manager Joe Maddon.

“We like where we are,” Epstein said Thursday as pitchers and catchers reported to camp to start fulfilling the promise of the next, big-league stage of this fourth-year rebuilding process.

But for all the playoff predictions from inside and outside the clubhouse after a $261-million offseason, if this season makes history for the Cubs, it’s more likely going to be for how it sets the stage for bigger, longer seasons in successive years.

They built their winter on landing top target Jon Lester to lead the pitching staff in that process. They finished second for James Shields, who might have given the Cubs a top-three or -four starting rotation in the National League.

“We’re realistic about what we are,” Epstein said. “We’re talented, we’re young. We’re excited about the season ahead, and I don’t want to temper our fans’ enthusiasm. At the same time, there’s still a need to be patient with a lot of our players, especially our young players.”

Where do they go from here?

How much of that powder is still dry?

Some of the answer lays in the team’s willingness, according to sources, to go to three years and $20 million for Shields, who eventually signed a four-year, $75-million deal with the San Diego Padres.

A more nuanced answer involves the fact that any deal for Shields would have required a lot of creative back-loading.

The Cubs have maybe $6 million of 2015 payroll flexibility before a likely trade of catcher Welington Castillo ($2.1 million) and possibly left-hander Travis Wood ($5.7 million).

“We have flexibility to make moves this year that we need to make,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We certainly hope we’re in a position, and plan to be in a position, to add in-season, and we have the money to do that.”

Hoyer wouldn’t disclose dollar figures or comment on the pursuit of specific players.

Sources say the Cubs talked to the Philadelphia Phillies about Cole Hamels — who has said he would welcome a trade — but the $96 million left on his contract and high asking price in young players remains an obstacle.

What about potential free agents David Price, Jordan Zimmerman or even Jeff Samardzija next winter? That was discussed internally when Shields, briefly, looked like a real possibility, sources say.

Again with dry powder.

The Cubs’ payroll didn’t actually go up this year. The increased spending power came from squirreled-away 2013 payroll.

So, much like a year ago, the biggest step toward that elusive big October could have a lot to do with this next step.

It’s all about the buzz.

After attendance declines in recent years, season-ticket sales were stronger than in years past. With promised local TV money several years away, the Cubs’ best way to get a bigger payroll budget near-term is to spur attendance increases, which could happen even with the bleachers closed for the first two months.

Every 100,000 is worth more than $7 million in revenue.

“Excitement certainly is going to bring some more fans to the ballpark,” Hoyer said. “At the same time, what’s ultimately going to keep bringing them back — and what could drive our attendance to where it used to be in ’07, ’08 — is winning.

“If we can get to the place where fans know they’re going to get a really good product and a winning product, and we drive that attendance higher, it really does significantly change our spending ability.”

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub