I hope everyone had a happy holiday. The Cubs got a present of sorts when it was announced that Masahiro Tanaka would be made available this offseason. As I have been saying since early last September, expect the Cubs to be in the thick of this pursuit with the caveat that it doesn't mean they will sign him. That is because the Yankees have made him their top priority and it's possible the Mariners may go all out after appearing to go all in on Robinson Cano -- and then not doing much since then. The Diamondbacks were reluctant to deal prospects for Jeff Samardzija, yet they have made it quite clear they are looking for MLB ready pitching. Having since traded away their primary bargaining chips, they could well be in the hunt as well. The truth is, with the posting fee at "just" $20M, there could be multiple teams involved in the chase.
But the offseason for the Cubs involves more than just Tanaka. Should they sign him, he would be, by far, the most significant MLB addition the Cubs will have made since the rebuild. But that isn't the only starting pitcher that could make a significant impact on the Cubs for their short and long term future.
Tanaka is expected to be one of the three most highly sought after pitchers this offseason. The other is David Price and the third is Jeff Samardzija. Despite their relatively quiet offseason, the Cubs find themselves in the middle of two of the biggest starting pitching sagas.
One source is telling me now that the Cubs will shelve Samardzija trade talk until at least the trade deadline on July 31st. So far the Cubs and the Rays have been disappointed in the offers for their young veteran arms and neither team has come close to making a deal. It appears both clubs are willing to wait rather than settle for anything less than significant surplus value and MLB ready talent. Interested teams have been reluctant to part with top prospects, so there has been little incentive to pull the trigger early the way the Tigers did with Doug Fister.
Perhaps that's a good thing. As Steve Stone once said, sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make. Could that be the case here?
If Jeff Samardzija was a free agent that would not cost the Cubs a draft pick to sign, I'd be willing to bet that he would be one of the free agents the Cubs would pursue this offseason -- but that would be contingent on having him for the next 5 years, enough to take him through his prime seasons.
But Samardzija is not a free agent. He is not on the open market so he cannot expect FA money simply because the Cubs will probably only have to pay him in the $15M range at most over the next two years combined. The deal has to involve Samardzija giving up the possibility of some free agent money in two years in exchange for some security that he won't get hurt or regress in the next two.
So far they haven't been able to work out that kind of deal and so a lot of the talk has turned to trading their most talented starter for prospects -- a move that would probably set the timeline back even a little further.
I've always gotten the sense that the Cubs prefer to keep Jeff Samardzija. Epstein is said to like him a great deal and the team has already given up it's only other young MLB ready power arm in Andrew Cashner. I think they are reluctant to do that again given their lack of can't miss starting pitching prospects in the minors. That is, unless the return is multiple of the kinds of high ceiling, relatively low risk pitching prospects they lack. They are just not getting that kind of offer right now, so the Cubs have chosen to hang on to their most promising MLB starter. That is a wise decision, in my opinion.
For what it's worth, I did speak to a rival executive who said that he would keep Samardzija if he were in the Cubs position. The Cubs have asked for a ton in return -- reportedly asking the D'Backs for both Archie Bradley and Tyler Skaggs and the Jays for both Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman. Additionally, they are said to have asked the Braves for Jason Heyward or Justin Upton to headline the deal. Other reports have them seeking two top MLB ready SP prospects plus a 3rd very good prospect in return. So it seems to me that the Cubs agree in that they aren't really anxious to deal Samardzija. Despite all the trade rumors, the Cubs asking price indicates they prefer to keep him. The MLB ready portion of their asking price also tells me they're not willing to push the timeline back too far -- if at all.
It appears that the interest in an extension is mutual, as Patrick Mooney wrote on Tuesday.
“They’re listening and that’s what any team would do on any player. I just feel like there’s still that common ground of what we both want to do...I feel like we’re on the same page with that (and) it has been (amicable). They haven’t been ripping me and I haven’t been ripping them. I think we’re on common ground with how we feel about each other. I just feel like there’s a decision that they need to make about what the plan is and what the future holds.”
What that future holds is still up in the air and much of it has to do with whether the Cubs are able to sign Masahiro Tanaka. If they do, that likely speeds up the timeline, especially if the Cubs hang on to Samardzija to start the season -- something I am expecting them to do as it stands today.
Samardzija's concerns about the future seem to have to do less with money and more with the team's ability to compete in the near future. He has been frustrated with the losing and in particular, Samardzija has publicly voiced his concern about the Cubs sell-offs at the deadline in each of the past two years. That's not to say he's not on board with what the Cubs are doing,
“I like to approach all this and keep my head online for the big picture of what we want to do, which is win here and win at Wrigley Field. And that’s that."
It's just that the ultra-competitive Samardzija, like many fans, would like that winning to come sooner rather than later. Rather than specific dollars, I believe he wants to be assured the Cubs are making progress toward that goal before he commits.
So what if the Cubs do land Masahiro Tanaka?
Suddenly you have a staff that looks pretty strong with every pitcher except for Jackson being less than 30 years old. Even Jackson himself is just 30 and won't turn 31 until the end of next season, so all pitchers would be in their prime years....
- Masahiro Tanaka
- Jeff Samardzija
- Travis Wood
- Edwin Jackson
- Jake Arrieta
The Cubs will likely keep Samardzija for now and that may work in their favor. If teams are only willing to deal for him for what he is now - an innings eating mid-rotation type, then that is unlikely to change much by the deadline anyway. So why not wait?
If the Cubs open with that kind of staff, it could show Samardzija and other soon-to-be free agents that the Cubs are serious about winning. In fact, given how competitive the Cubs were last year despite off years by their core, a poor bullpen performance and injuries to their rotation, it wouldn't be all that surprising to see the Cubs take a significant step forward with that kind of rotation pitching in front of what should be an above average defense. That would put less burden on what should be a below average offense.
In that light, I think it's worth it for the Cubs to give this a half season before they trade Samardzija -- particularly if they beat the odds and sign Tanaka. Remaining competitive through July and retaining their core players would send a message that the Cubs are closer than we think. And who knows? Maybe if the Cubs feel like they are getting close, perhaps they'll buy instead of sell and get the jump on a potential 2015 free agent market that is expected to include much needed LH hitters like Chase Headley, Colby Rasmus, and Brett Gardner, not to mention a lot of talented starting pitching.
My guess is if that happens and Jeff Samardzija is a big part of that step forward, then the mutual incentive to sign an extension will get even stronger.
Perhaps the Cubs can go into the next offseason with an entirely different outlook with their top prospects on the doorstep, a strong 2015 free agent class, and an in-prime rotation that includes a newly extended Jeff Samardzija.
Theoretically the Samardzija and Tanaka cases are separate, but it may not be that simple. It seems that despite the Cubs words to the contrary, the two fates are inextricably tied. Not dealing their top starter may help show Tanaka that the Cubs are serious about winning soon while signing Tanaka may show Samardzija that the Cubs intend to field the kind of competitive team that could convince him to extend.
Whatever the case, the next few months -- particularly as it pertains to Tanaka and Samardzija -- are going to be big for the Cubs as far as determining their direction in the next couple of years.