Epstein Agonistes, or Tanaka Lost

Twitter and the baseball rumor mill were abuzz the last few days as reports indicated the Cubs were possibly IN BIG on Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Against all odds, Cub fans started to believe they had a real shot. The latest reports on Tuesday night seemed to suggest that Tanaka had narrowed his choices to the Cubs and the Yankees. At about 9:00 a.m. CST Wednesday morning, the bubble burst when we learned that he had signed with the Yankees. Wrigleyville Nation baseball analysts David and Patrick discuss the fallout for the Cubs:

David: Well, Patrick, we learned this morning that Masahiro Tanaka has signed with the Yankees. Seven years and $155 million, almost identical to the Ellsbury deal, except for the opt out clause. My overriding thought, above all others, is that the Cubs have now lost their primary free agent targets (Anibal Sanchez and Tanaka) in successive winters, despite their best efforts, probably due to their losing culture more than any single factor. This has to sting the front office a little bit, however much they may have understood the Yankees and Dodgers were always the front runners. In retrospect, it seems a little bit silly that any of us thought he would actually pick the Cubs instead of the Yankees or Dodgers.

Patrick: Theo says that there is no honor in winning 77 games. Maybe not from a draft or international free agent spending pool standpoint, but possibly from a free agent standpoint. Would Tanaka have come to a .500 Cubs team?  Who knows?  It’s hard to plan a whole rebuilding process around one possible free agent signing. Moving forward, however, the Cubs must now realize that improved on-field performance plays a role in wooing free agents. The Cubs have built up a strong young talent base in the minor leagues (which they will augment with the 4th pick in this year’s draft), but the time for losing is nearly up. The fans are running out of patience and, apparently, so are free agents. Also, you do not want to create a losing environment at the major league level that affects your young players currently on the team (Castro, Rizzo, Lake, etc..).

David: The Cubs would have been a lot more plausible in the NL Central in 2014 with a Sanchez, Tanaka, Samardzija, Wood, Jackson rotation. But that is all a dream now. On a brighter note, the Cubs do seem to have the willingness and financial flexibility to spend on the right free agents. I don’t know, though, if it’s a good thing or bad thing that the barrier is the Cub culture rather than money. In any case, can we stop taking seriously the weekly Gordon Wittenmyer articles in the Chicago Sun Times on the dismal state of the Cubs financial condition? A national baseball writer, Jeff Passan, recently channeled his inner-Scott Boras and wrote a similar article explaining how “cheap” the Cubs were. Are the Cubs broke? Are they cheap? Can we stop all that speculation now or is there something to it?

Patrick: I feel Theo’s pain on this one. The thought of a quicker turnaround crossed my mind with that starting rotation that you referenced. Now, we may end up going in the opposite direction. Worst-case scenario:  Travis Wood’s peripherals catch up with him, Edwin Jackson continues to struggle, Jake Arrieta has control issues, and Shark (Jeff Samardzija) is moved at the trade deadline as the Cubs sit hopelessly in last place. Again, this seemingly is a worst-case scenario, but how far fetched is it?  Another disappointing season will not make the Cubs a more inviting destination for free agents unless the team compensates with significantly more money than other teams are willing to pay. Again, such an approach cuts against the concept of spending money wisely. How do the Cubs get out of this conundrum? The Cubs’ best hope right now appears to rest in player development.  It goes without saying, the faster the better.

David: At some point in the rebuild, though, the Cubs will need free agent pitching. Player development won’t get them there – they don’t have the horses. Their horses are position players: Almora, Baez, Bryant, and the increasingly promising Arismendy Alcantara. Even if a few of their top prospects turn into studs, a very distinct possibility, they won’t develop enough minor league pitching. The free agent crop of pitchers after 2014 is very intriguing, as it could include David Price, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, James Shields, and Homer Bailey. Of course, those guys will be going on the market at 30 or older. If the Cubs win 70 games this year, as your worst-case rotation scenario would suggest, they will get another high draft pick in 2015, but high draft pick stories are starting to get old in 2014. Back to my question concerning the state of the Cubs’ finances, Peter Gammons is reporting today that, “The Cubs simply didn’t have the cash to finish it, and knew they were not seriously in it.” If this is true, it means their involvement was merely a marketing ploy to string along the fan base. It means that all of my worst nightmares about Wittenmyer being right could be true! Say it ain’t so, Casey Close! 

Patrick: I don’t have a ton of confidence in Peter Gammons’ source – it’s probably Gordon Wittenmyer, for all we know. The notion that the Cubs were not serious contenders for Tanaka cuts against everything that has been reported for the past three weeks. If true, the entire baseball world was snowed and the media will unearth those details in time. Getting back to your point about pitching, I share your concerns. It looks like the Cubs’ system is in the process of developing a few middle of the rotation starting pitchers and a slew of back-of-the-rotation guys who are more likely to have big league impact in the bullpen. This would be a huge improvement over the past five years, but not enough (on its own) to make us playoff contenders.  We need two top shelf starting pitchers, which I realize is easier said than done. If Shark develops this season into even a number two starter, I think it prudent to sign him to a contract extension, even if the Cubs have to overpay him to do so. As for those other starters you mentioned, I find it hard to believe that more than one or possibly two of them will not sign contract extensions before the season ends, either with their current teams or as part of a trade elsewhere. Again, the Cubs should make a run at any of them who are available, but many 30-year-old stud pitchers want to play on a contender.  Knowing that to be the case, the Cubs will have to make significant strides toward respectability to entice one of them.  As an aside, the price of top end pitching has always been high (remember Maddux left the Cubs in 1993 for 5 years and $24 million), and will continue to increase as television money floods some teams’ pockets.

David: Yes. You can’t do it all at once, which is why the plan to sign a top free agent pitcher last year and another this year was such a good plan. Shark could be one of the building blocks. If he emerges Dave Stewart-like in 2014 in his age-29 season, I hope the Cubs sign him to the big money deal he is apparently holding out for. But he is just one guy. We need to wrap this up. But I need to ask you – given all the Milton you surely must have studied as an undergraduate at Holy Cross those many years ago, you no doubt understand that tragedies are supposed to end with some kind of catharsis. Where is the catharsis here? I’m not feeling it quite yet. Can you help?  (But please don’t tell me I will find it in Ubaldo Jimenez or Bronson Arroyo!)

356px-MiltonPoeticalWorksNewton1752-61 252px-John-milton

Patrick: Alas, my tastes gravitated toward Aristophanes and his wicked sense of humor. This must explain my Cub fandom as well. Time will tell on what pitchers, if any, the Cubs acquire this off-season. Another Maholm or Feldman type of pitcher who they can flip at the trading deadline might be their best bet at this point. The pitchers you mention, Jimenez in particluar, carry a significant deal of risk and will cost more than the Cubs paid for Jackson last off-season. Maybe the time has come for the Cubs to trade some of their young prospects for a youngish starting pitcher about to enter free agency in a year. David Price?


  1. Jim says:

    Milton also wrote “they also serve who only stand and wait.” This must have been addressed to Cub fans, don’t you think?

    1. David says:

      Yes. And as for Theo specifically, Cub fans can relate to this:

      “All is best, though we oft doubt
      What the unsearchable dispose
      Of Highest Wisdom brings about,”

      Of course, Samson was dead at this point. In his epic quest — “The Greatest Title Quest in All of Sports” — Theo was just dusted up a little bit!