After a couple of days of Masahiro Tanaka hangover, it seems like as good a time as ever to say it: we’re probably better off without him. Maybe it was a stroke of good luck for the Cubs to not have gotten married to an attractive young toy right now. I mean, sure, you see him and smile and hope he’s so totally into you, but deep down you know he’s not really into you because he’s just using you to get back at an ex and will probably dump you and leave you sitting alone on a Friday night pouring Old Style in your ice cream and watching The Notebook.
My tortured metaphor notwithstanding, signing Masahiro Tanaka would have done some things for the organization right now. It would have definitely appeased an uneasy fan base. It would have given the business side of the house a marketable young player while they wait for the majority of its marketable young players to come from Iowa. Most of all, though, it would have lent maximum credibility to Theo’s claim that the Cubs would go out and get a 25 year old impact free agent. In that regard, though, Theo did keep his promise. He made a significant offer to a young, impact type player who fit the model. He offered a lot of money to someone who’s never thrown an MLB pitch. He definitely took a shot. The Yankees took a bigger shot and loaded it with more frills and freebees than the Cubs could afford, with a no-trade clause and an opt-out clause.
Let’s assume that Tanaka had taken the Cubs offer, which was reportedly 6 years and $120M. He would immediately be anointed the ace of the Cubs’ staff. He would not have made them good enough to contend this season for anything but fourth in the NL Central. All adding Tanaka would have done was add another layer of uncertainty to an organization that is knee deep in uncertainty right now. Again, he’s never thrown a pitch in the majors. With an organization that is building itself with prospects, who are the very definition of uncertainty, it is borderline irresponsible to invest so heavily in an unproven commodity.
2014 is going to be a year where things only start to sort themselves out. At least a little bit. We’ll get the chance to see if Starlin Castro will revert back to being the guy we saw in 2010 and 2011 or if trying to change him last season only broke him for good. We’ll see if Anthony Rizzo takes another step forward in his major league development and becomes the consistent hitting force he has shown flashes of already. We may get our first major league peeks at Javier Baez and other prospects like Arismendy Alcantara, Kyle Hendricks, and Mike Olt. Off the field, the renovation and TV deals may be cleared up and much needed revenue streams could be seen with more clarity. With a franchise that is almost entirely gray, there stands to be more black and white when 2014 is over.
With the starting pitching market looking much better next season in free agency, it was not imperative for the Cubs to run out and grab the big time pitcher on the market this season, knowing full well this was not going to be “the year.” While he was obviously attractive and fit the long term plan because of his age and potential, his price makes him a question mark that a team with some limitations on ability to spend. Since the front office will be allowed to roll unspent money into next season’s budget, finding a pitcher or two in free agency next winter is a real possibility. While it is unlikely that Max Scherzer makes it to free agency, options like James Shields, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and others are legitimate alternatives to bridge the gap between this rebuilding phase and filling the staff with homegrown arms.
This would have been much easier, and likely much more convincing, had I written this after Tanaka flamed out or got hurt. Because he is still so unknown, and most expect him to be a success in MLB, these words likely ring as bitter words after a defeat at the hands of the Yankees. Had he come to the Cubs, the tune of this piece, or one very similar to it, likely would have been hoping that he lives up to his potential, hoping he does not get hurt, and hoping that if he is going to get hurt, to let it happen this season. It is that last sentence that makes this piece so relevant, though. Tanaka is hope. The Yankees can afford to throw $155M Hail Marys. The Cubs can’t. Not in their current financial situation, because although the team says it can afford to pay the player, they do have a debt structure to stay within the confines of. And because after years of big contracts, Tanaka not panning out would have been a disaster for Theo’s front office in the eyes of many fans.
Masahiro Tanaka could very well get on the mound at Wrigley Field this season and be dominant. Unfortunately, it will be on either May 20 or 21 as a member of the Yankees. And it shouldn’t change how we react to him being there. It’s alright to be disappointed, but it is not a failure to not get him. All not getting him did was allow Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to have more time and gather more information about the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of the club before making the free agent splash they will inevitably make. And that makes me feel a whole lot better than finding Schrödinger’s cat along the way through a well executed rebuild, to this point.