Tanaka or Bust

The race is on for teams to obtain Masahiro Tanaka. I believe it is imperative that the Cubs acquire him. With the addition of Tanaka, the Cubs would add a vital young piece to their starting rotation and accelerate their plodding rebuilding process. Although the Cubs continue to develop pitching talent through their minor league system, injuries and ineffectiveness eventually will take their toll on many prospective candidates. Tanaka constitutes a valuable major-league-ready option, and would jumpstart a promising youth movement that could begin to make a notable impact at the major league level before the 2014 season’s send.

For the very reasons that it makes little sense to spend 100 million-plus dollars to sign 30-something year-old free agents to long-term deals when the team likely will not be competitive for another two years, the Cubs should spend a large sum of money to acquire the services of a 25-year-old pitcher who figures to be part of the team’s young core for the rest of the decade. Scouts generally assess Tanaka as having the potential to be a legitimate number-two starting pitcher on a major league team’s pitching staff. Favorable comparisons to recent Japanese sensation Yu Darvish appear to have excited major league front offices. Also attractive to teams such as the Cubs is the fact that the team that signs Tanaka will not have to pay any draft-pick compensation or comport with any international free agent spending limits. Tanaka represents everything that the Cubs are looking for in a high-priced free agent financial commitment and all reports indicate that they plan to be a serious player in the Tanaka sweepstakes.

Tanaka represents an unprecedented free-agent option this offseason because he is a promising young pitcher who can be had by any major league team. All it takes is money. Based on the current economic environment, I believe that the Cubs strategically should be prepared to make a front-loaded seven-year offer in the neighborhood of $150 million that pays out $25 million in each of the first two seasons and $20 million each season thereafter. When competing for players against the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, the operative negotiating phrase is “go big or go home” (empty handed). The Cubs should be prepared to sweeten the deal if need be to $160 million with $30 million each in seasons one and two – and this is on top of the 20-million-dollar cover charge (in the form of a posting fee) required for the privilege of winning this high-stakes contest.

A fair retort to this plan asks why so much money and why a front-loaded deal? The economic reality in Major League Baseball is that teams are flush with cash. Between the lucrative television contracts negotiated by teams such as the Yankees, Dodgers, and Los Angeles Angels, and the 25 million dollars each major league team will receive annually in national television money, the price for free agents has risen. Take a look at the free agent signings to date of Carlos Beltran, Robinson Cano, Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, Hiroki Kuroda, Brian McCann, and Mike Napoli. Each of these players received a contract this offseason that pays at least 15 million dollars per year. Teams have shown a willingness to throw money around this season in part because there is so much money available.

The biggest advantage that the Cubs have over several other top Tanaka suitors is payroll flexibility. The Cubs have committed such a small amount of money to this year’s team, largely because they have stayed out of the traditional high-profile free agent market, that they should have the ability to spend big if the right deal comes along. Tanaka is that deal. Luckily for the Cubs, if they structure a front-loaded deal properly, they can take advantage of their payroll situation as compared to other teams.

In contrast to the Cubs, teams like the Dodgers and Yankees have high team salaries that pose serious luxury tax consequences. Last season, the Dodgers paid 11 million dollars in luxury tax while the Yankees were hit with a 28-million-dollar tax. For 2014, the Yankees’ luxury tax status effectively means that paying Tanaka 30 million dollars next season would cost them approximately an additional 12 million dollars via the luxury tax. Forty-two million dollars for 2014 plus a 20-million-dollar posting fee (totaling $62 million) might be too much even for the Yankees. For this reason, the Cubs could compensate for their lack of current major league team success and possible geographic undesirability with upfront money.

The largest obstacle that the Cubs may face in the contest to acquire Tanaka may not be money, but the other hard to quantify intangibles that exist. Does Tanaka insist on playing on the West Coast? If so, the Dodgers and Seattle Mariners have a leg up. Does Tanaka want to play for a traditional championship-winning team? The Yankees fit that bill. Does it matter that Tanaka shares the same agent as Derek Jeter? The Yankees win again. Who knows how these questions factor into Tanaka’s decision-making? Theo Epstein and company will need to craft a convincing reason for why Tanaka should join the Cubs instead. Small clubhouses? The Cubs promise to build state-of-the-art facilities. A poor on-field product? The Cubs have a promising farm system about to pay dividends at the major league level. Rooftop consternation? The Cubs might as well buy them all for what is at stake in these negotiations. The impact that such factors will have in Tanaka’s decision-making are difficult, if not impossible, to predict. The effort to construct a nuanced and persuasive narrative to make Tanaka comfortable enough to commit to the Cubs will be this front office’s greatest challenge to date. Hopefully, the front office’s sales pitch will sway Tanaka to don the Cubbie-blue pinstriped jersey come opening day. That said, a truckload of money certainly cannot hurt the Cubs’ chances.

The Cubs are at a pivotal juncture in their rebuilding efforts. The farm system appears close to producing high-impact, young positional talent. Meanwhile, the major league roster contains cost-controlled contracts (Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro) along with players under team control for several seasons (Welington Castillo and Travis Wood) and veteran players with soon-to-be expiring contracts. The addition of a high-end, 25-year-old pitcher would speed the Cubs’ development and reduce the temptation to rush the team’s few top pitching prospects or, worse yet, spend $100 million on a 30-something year-old pitcher in the next three years out of desperation/positional need. Tanaka clearly solves this problem by balancing out the team’s young talent from a positional standpoint. For all of the reasons set forth above, the Cubs must make an aggressive attempt to purchase the services of Masahiro Tanaka. This is the type of acquisition that Cub fans have been promised during the last two years of nearly unprecedented futility. Go big!

Photo is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. June 26, 2007. Author: Neier.