Cubs can’t miss out on the next Yu Darvish

Cubs can’t miss out on the next Yu Darvish
May 7, 2013, 1:30 am
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If Yu Darvish wore a Cubs uniform, just think of the television ratings and how many Japanese companies would buy up the advertising space all around a renovated Wrigley Field.

The unanswered question is how fast the Cubs can transfer their Jumbotron and all those other potential revenue-generators to the baseball operations department. So Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have more money to, you know, put a better product on the field.

Epstein has said “it’s not instantaneous by any means,” depending on when the $500 million stadium/hotel project finally gets the green light, and how fast the business side creates revenue streams. But until the Cubs start “behaving the way a big market should,” they will pay the price for missed opportunities.

The Cubs bid aggressively for Darvish – and reportedly finished second to the Texas Rangers in December 2011 – but didn’t have the financial flexibility to put together the more than $110 million it would have taken to pay the posting fee and sign the Japanese star to a long-term contract.

“I’m not going to sit here and say we thought he’d have 75 strikeouts in 50 innings,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said before Monday’s 9-2 loss to the Cubs, hanging out in the visiting dugout during batting practice. “But our collective group felt he had a chance to be a top-of-the-rotation guy.”

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After an All-Star rookie season, Darvish now looks like a Cy Young frontrunner. There’s the 5-1 record with a 2.56 ERA – actually 72 strikeouts through 45.2 innings – and that trippy GIF where he’s throwing five pitches at once.

“He’s not a finished product. There’s going to be challenges,” Daniels said. “But when you look at the combination of physical gifts along with his demeanor and competitiveness, it’s pretty unique, especially at 25, 26 years old. That’s a lot of what went into our thinking.

“You don’t get a chance at guys with that kind of ability – period – much less at that age. (With) a guy that has that kind of upside, you either get a chance to get him when he’s 17 or 18, more than likely. And then you have to (go through the) attrition. Or you get him when he’s 30 to 33, probably past his quote-unquote ‘prime years.’

“So we took a big financial risk, but we just felt like it was a pretty unique opportunity.”    

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The Cubs have been risk-averse since the Ricketts family finalized a highly leveraged $845 million purchase of the team in October 2009 (along with a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago). Chairman Tom Ricketts has described the payrolls during the final years of Tribune Co. ownership as “unsustainable” within the current business model.

Ricketts has promised the team will have all the necessary resources to compete, and the Cubs should cash in with a new television contract after the 2014 season, as well as a renovated Wrigley Field.

After speaking last week to a group of business leaders at a City Club of Chicago event, Ricketts was asked if he thought the stadium process would have been easier with a winning team.

“I know I feel my life would be easier with a winning baseball team,” Ricketts quipped. “But the fact is we’re doing everything we can to build a new baseball organization. We’re doing a lot of good things behind the scenes.

“We’re building a minor-league system. We’re building great facilities for our minor-league players. We’re getting better coaching for our minor-league players.

“That’s ultimately what you have to do to win. (But) I don’t think this process would have gone that much smoother if we (had a winning record).”

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Daniels – who recently added president of baseball operations to his title – has overseen a rebuilding project from the ground up as the architect of Texas teams that won back-to-back American League pennants in 2010 and 2011. Baseball America rated the Rangers as having a top-two system in 2009 and 2010.

The investment group led by Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan won the auction for the team in bankruptcy court in August 2010. A month later, Fox Sports reportedly gave the Rangers a 20-year, $3 billion television contract. 

“The irony is that it actually hasn’t had any real effect for us,” Daniels said. “The narrative is that it’s this big game-changer. (But) we had kind of committed to this scouting-and-development program well in advance. The biggest thing the TV deal has done is it somewhat went hand-and-hand with the ownership change. That was a huge benefit.

“The actual new revenues don’t start until 2015. (But) I think for the clubs that are now in the process of building and negotiating their deals – you’ve seen some of the numbers – it really can change things for a franchise.”

Daniels credited Texas ownership with spending some of those future revenues now, boosting payroll and capitalizing on the momentum from three straight trips to the playoffs.

Looking at the USA TODAY salary database across the last four seasons, the Rangers have gone from acting like a small-market team to being a mid-size player to flexing big-market muscles: $55.3 million; $92.3 million; $120.5 million; $114.1 million.

The Cubs have to evolve quickly, so they don’t miss out on the next Darvish.