Yes, I know the Cubs are saying they don't have money to spend but I'm not buying that yet. I'm not saying they're going to open up the checkbook ala the Tribune pre-sale free agent extravaganza, but it is still my understanding that they will aggressively pursue players who they think fit their long term plan. That has not changed.
The player that best fits that critetia is RHP Masahiro Tanaka
The Cubs have been active in the Asian market, landing Kyuji Fujikawa and Chang-Yon Lim, but also falling short in their pursuit of Yu Darvish and Hyun-Jin Ryu. They also showed interest in outfielder Norichika Aoki and infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima. They decided not to bid on Aoki and fell just short on Nakajima, again placing 2nd in their bid.
Darvish was always a long shot, though the Cubs did again come in 2nd. The Cubs had a very realistic shot at Ryu and put it in what they felt was an excellent offer, only to be outbid by the monopoly money Dodgers. Perhaps if you could do this over again, you would put the money earmarked for Fujikawa and combine that with the Ryu bid. In hindsight and with all due respect to Fujikawa, who had the misfortune of suffering a major arm injury, it would have easily been worth it.
With another top free agent from the NPB on the market, can the Cubs afford to not win the bid this time?
Tanaka is the best player in this free agent class and I've received nothing but raves from scouts regarding his stuff, command, and makeup. More than a couple of scouts think that he could possibly be a top of the rotation starter and most think he's at least a #2.
Tanaka is capable of reaching 97 mph on his 4-seam FB though he often works more in the 92-94 range. His fastball is considered a plus pitch, as is his slider. His best pitch, however, may be a splitter, which I've been told rates 70 on the 20-80 scale by three different scouts.
There are some in the industry who believe the Cubs may be even more aggressive than they have been in the past in the Pacific Rim market. I've heard rumors on the bid being anywhere from somewhere north of what Ryu got to perhaps even approaching the bid Darvish received, though that seems unlikely. But when you consider that some think he can fit in at the top of the rotation, that idea suddenly doesn't seem that outlandish.
The Yankees and Rangers have been the most visible in their pursuit of Tanaka and one always has to consider the Dodgers a threat, but don't be at all surprised if the Cubs are lying in the weeds on this one.
With growing concerns about the money issue and the pace of the rebuild, can they afford not to? We talked about how the Cubs had a more sound process entering this season and may not be as far off as we think, but Tanaka would be a major boost to the efforts in 2014 -- especially if the Cubs are also able to continue to improve the bullpen, get rebound seasons from Castro and Rizzo, and improve their OBP skills overall.
Moreover, he's still young and can be a long term piece of the puzzle. The 6'2", 205 lbs RHP turns 25 in November, so he should just be entering his prime as the Cubs are getting an infusion of impact talent from their system.
Again, I don't think it's a matter of not having enough money. I think it's a matter of pursuing the right fits and there are precious few, if any, ideal fits among the big names in this year's free agent class. Nobody in this year's class is a better fit for the rebuilding Cubs than Tanaka. There may not even be a close 2nd right now. So while the Cubs may not be awash in revenue/TV deal money yet, money is not so scarce that they will pass up on a rare opportunity to bid on a potential top of the rotation arm who is also a couple years away from entering his prime year.
And as scarce as you may think that money is, it's not as scarce as the number of quality young starters available -- especially when it will not cost a single player or draft pick in compensation. Expect the Cubs to seize this opportunity the way they tried to seize on the Anibal Sanchez opportunity last season. That bid fell short, but it wasn't for lack of effort or resources-- the Cubs even tried to overpay for him, beating the previous offer by some $30M. Ultimately the Tigers decided they could not afford to lose him. Similarly, I think the Cubs feel like they can't afford to pass on this rare opportunity. The money will be there if the Cubs decide that Tanaka can indeed be a piece of the puzzle. Of that, I have little doubt.
If some scouts are right and think he can be a top of the rotation starter, it would make the Cubs rotation look pretty strong in 2014 and over the next few years. Here's how it may look next year with their current ages.
- Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, 25
- Jeff Samardzija, RHP, 28
- Edwin Jackson, RHP, 29
- Travis Wood, LHP, 26
- Jake Arrieta, RHP, 27
That rotation would easily be good enough to compete in the NL Central. Edwin Jackson's peripherals are similar to those he has put up his entire career, so it's reasonable to assume he should be the same Edwin Jackson we've always known again. Samardzija has "struggled" as the team's #1 starter and hasn't taken that 2nd leap forward yet -- but that's not to say he still can't. His peripherals are also similar to last season, when we were thinking he could be a top of the rotation arm.
With both Jackson and Samardzija, we've fallen into that trap of expecting linear progress -- and when it doesn't happen, we are disappointed and lower our expectations. Then when they rebound or improve the next year, we are suddenly surprised again. I'm expecting some regression with Travis Wood, but I think he should slot into that 4th spot nicely and the hope is that Jake Arrieta takes that 5th spot in April -- but perhaps with a chance to move up higher in the rotation during the season. There would also be excellent depth behind them with Carlos Villanueva, Justin Grimm, Chris Rusin, and Kyle Hendricks.
The question would then be whether the Cubs could build a good enough team around them to take that big step forward in 2014.