If you are like me, at some point in your life you have laid on your back and stared up at the clouds. After a while, we start to see images in those clouds. We do this because our big brains try to make sense of the combinations of shadow and light. It fills in the gaps by perceiving an image that is familiar to us.
I am no different.
Similarly, in the absence of complete information, we are left to speculate, so we try to make sense of it, but not everyone perceives the same information the same way.
So I will give you my perception. You can give me yours in the comments section.
To me, this is what's happening when we look at both the Tanaka speculation and the Cubs apparent financial constraints.
Should he stay or should he go?
There is much speculation on the fate of Masahiro Tanaka lately. I've given up on Google Translate to try and make sense of the meaning behind articles written in Japanese. And even if I could make sense of it, the information changes so rapidly that it makes little sense to try and keep up. Let me save you the trouble of following Twitter. It goes something like this...
News: Ratuken is not going to post Tanaka
Update: Ratuken is going to post Tanaka
Update #2: No decision has been made yet
I'm going to go with Update #2.
There are undoubtedly internal discussions within the Ratuken organization. There are undoubtedly discussions between Tanaka and Rakuten.
What to make of it?
Well, I see Ratuken as having made a financial calculation internally which goes something like this: the cost of keeping Tanaka vs. the cost of letting him go. I imagine they are offering him a raise in a good faith effort to get him to stay, but they will only go so far. At some point the cost of paying Tanaka a high salary plus the lost opportunity to make $20M in posting fees will be too great to make good business sense. On the other hand, letting him go could be a lost opportunity in terms of drawing revenue. There has to be a balance there and I'm sure Ratuken has decided on a line that they will not cross.
So Ratuken is likely going to offer an amount that still makes financial sense to them and then the ball will be in Tanaka's court.
Door #1: Does he take the smaller raise and keep his family in Japan?
Door #2: Does he take a raise that is certain to be larger while fulfilling his dream to play in the MLB?
My guess is he chooses Door #2 in that situation.
But that still doesn't answer the question of whether Ratuken will let him go if Tanaka does indeed decide to reject their offer. The final decision is theirs and theirs alone. So you have to believe one of two responses from Ratuken in that situation...
- Tanaka says "No thanks" and Ratuken counters with saying, "Too bad, you're staying anyway" whether that is for just one year or until he becomes a free agent in 2 years.
- Tanaka says, "No thanks" and Ratuken says something PR-ish like, "Well, we did what we could to keep him but ultimately we aren't going to stop him from pursuing his dream or even greater financial security for him and his family".
Again, I'm going with Door #2 on this one. I think if they were going to keep him no matter what they wouldn't bother offering him a raise, they probably just wouldn't post him. If he says no to the raise what would they do? Give it to him anyway and keep him or rescind the offer and keep him? Neither makes sense to me when they could simply choose to not post him without negotiating at all.
But hey, that's my interpretation, yours could be different.
Lost in the supermarket
Patrick Mooney wrote an excellent article on how Theo Epstein would spend. Once again, when it come to the Cubs finances, we are dealing with incomplete information, so we need to fill in the gaps again. We could perceive the Cubs not spending as:
- They would love to spend more money but they can't spend what they do not have
- They would love to spend, just not on what is out there and available
- They would love to spend on what is out there and available but not at the cost of long term assets and payroll flexibility given where the team is now.
There is some gray area here, of course, and perhaps some overlap. The consensus seems to be that the Cubs spending doesn't necessarily mean they have to go for the 9 figure contract guys. And most agree the Cubs would spend on an in-prime, impact level player that doesn't cost them any long term assets (i.e. a draft pick) or doesn't result in decreasing value just when the Cubs are ready to win. That describes Tanaka. As Mooney states,
Of course, Tanaka makes perfect sense if the Rakuten Golden Eagles let him leave Japan. The 25-year-old right-hander went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season. But everyone’s looking for pitching and prime-age players.
And then Theo says something revealing in the very next paragraph,
"You need two different kinds of currency: Massive amounts of payroll flexibility and/or a surplus of quality young players."
These are the Cubs biggest assets right now. So you have to ask yourself, do you give that up for a short term fix like Ubaldo Jimenez? Jimenez would cost a draft pick and it's likely his peak performance years will be over by the time the Cubs are ready to contend. So while the Cubs have payroll flexibility now, should they risk giving that up by signing Jimenez to a 4 or 5 year deal when that contract may not provide value and flexibility at the back end -- the precise time when the Cubs will need it most?
I don't think so.
The same argument would apply for guys like Choo, Ellsbury, or any number of free agents, particularly those that entail losing a draft pick. That brings us to another question.
Would Theo still spend if it cost them a draft pick even if he had the money...and even if the team was in contention?
It's hard to say. Several contending teams haven't signed free agents, including Theo's old team, the Boston Red Sox, who we assume maintain a similar philosophy with virtually all of the same front office still left from Theo's time there.
If we say no on free agents attached to a comp pick, that rules out a lot of difference-making options right off the bat. And when you consider the team is not in contention, it would seem to make even less sense.
In what is expected to be a deeper draft this year, the Cubs will have a high 2nd round pick that will likely be in the 40-50 range. That is about the place where they selected Pierce Johnson two years ago.
Would you trade Pierce Johnson for Ubaldo Jimenez or Curtis Granderson when their biggest impact will likely come in the next two years? Who would you rather have in 3-4 years? Pierce Johnson or Curtis Granderson?
I have my answer and you can probably guess what that is.
Now there are plenty of free agents available that do not involve losing a draft pick, most notably former Cub Matt Garza. But Garza isn't coming back here. Trust me on that one.
There were also possibilities like Scott Kazmir, Josh Johnson, Roberto Hernandez, and Ricky Nolasco. They wouldn't have cost a draft pick and thus explains why the Cubs pursued at least two of those players (Johnson, Hernandez). Meanwhile Kazmir got a nice offer from a contending team with a big ballpark and Nolasco was given more money than most teams, including the Cubs, would be willing to give him anyway. The Cubs aren't the only team who sees some value in signing such players but regardless of available resources, there is a limit on how much they should spend on such players.
It's worth it to lose some payroll flexibility for Tanaka...but does it also make sense for someone like Nolasco given where the team is right now?
Again, I think you know my answer.
There is the loss of some payroll flexibility and some considerable risk with any free agent, especially pitchers. Now is not the time to take that risk and lose flexibility when the big payoff could be 3 wins above replacement level.
If the Cubs were a better team generating more revenue than that risk could well be worth it. But they are not a contending team and they won't be drawing that extra revenue -- not yet anyway. When that happens, which could be as soon as next season, then I think the Cubs will be able to afford taking those risks. You can gamble and lose when you have a better foundation of MLB talent and higher streams of revenue.
To very loosely paraphrase Frank Lloyd Wright,
Good teams can always bury their mistakes, rebuilding teams have to cover them with ivy.
So as painful as it is and how we have become weary of hearing it as Cubs fans, we will have to wait.
I don't know how long that will be, but what if all the revenue issues are resolved mid-season? What if the Cubs are performing above expectations and appear to have something to build on?
Then you can see the Cubs taking on salary, perhaps at the deadline, but certainly by the next offseason. But whether the Cubs surprise or not in 2014, the expected increase in revenue alone is enough reason to spend next offseason.
So yeah, I do believe the Cubs can spend. I also believe they have limitations, some financial, and some self-imposed because it doesn't make sense in the long term. There is more to lose than to gain at this point even with mid-level free agents.
So why not wait until their situation favors taking such risks?
I think you know my answer, so I ask you for your interpretation. What images do your perceive in these clouds that hang over Wrigley Field?
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