Updated: 10:45 p.m.
The Cubs identified Anibal Sanchez as the game-changer, the rare free agent they thought could help them win now and win later and wouldnt make them regret the long-term investment.
Quietly, the Cubs pursued Sanchez for about a month, and they were willing to buy high. Team president Theo Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts met with Sanchez, his wife and his agent at a Miami restaurant on Thursday, trying to sell them on the teams baseball and business plans for the next several years.
Sanchez wanted to play for a winner, and felt comfortable with the Detroit Tigers, who had reportedly opened with a four-year, 48 million offer. The Cubs appealed to the ego, saying this was the chance to be the main building block, and not just another pitcher after Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
That night, the Cubs reached their ceiling: Five years, 77.5 million.
That certainly grabbed Detroits attention. By Friday morning, Cubs executives heard the answer: Sanchez agreed to a five-year, 80 million contract with the Tigers.
The decision came after Thursdays wave of conflicting reports on Twitter, which had the Cubs closing in on Sanchez, then securing a five-year, 75 million deal (which never happened), then waiting to see how the Tigers would counter. The Cubs expected Sanchezs agent, Gene Mato, to go back to the Tigers, though they probably didnt expect the negotiations to play out so publicly across cyberspace.
Whats clear is that a pitcher with a losing record in the big leagues (48-51) and a career 3.75 ERA has just made a fortune.
But the Cubs went after Sanchez thinking hed take a leap forward, because hed only be 29 years old next season and could still perform at a high level when Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro reach their prime. By then, the next wave of talent Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora could be crashing into Wrigley Field.
A difference-maker like Sanchez could have accelerated the rebuilding process, making 2013 an interesting summer on the North Side and setting up high expectations for 2014. But this was really about 2015 and beyond.
At one point, the Cubs sensed Sanchez and his wife were coming around to the idea and envisioning themselves in Chicago. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer surely must have thought Sanchez could handle the weight of the contract and the pressure inside this market. They once knew him as a prospect in the Boston Red Sox system.
That was before Hoyer acting as Bostons co-general manager with Ben Cherington around Thanksgiving 2005 when Epstein briefly left the organization packaged Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez in a megadeal with the Florida Marlins to get Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell.
All those factors mean its very unlikely the Cubs would just shift that kind of 75 million investment to the next pitchers on the board. Kyle Lohse, for example, is 34 years old, making it harder to put him on the same timeline. They dont see any other big-tickets items worth that kind of money still on the market. But clearly theyve shown they can surprise with these stealth operations.
If the Cubs really wanted a pitcher, they probably would have already signed him by now. They filled out their rotation with two modest signings last month Scott Baker and Scott Feldman on one-year deals worth 11.5 million combined in guarantees. They were checking in on Brandon McCarthy last week before he accepted a two-year, 15.5 million offer from the Arizona Diamondbacks. They figure to be tracking players who had been non-tendered, or free agents falling to their price range and willing to take one-year deals.
At last weeks winter meetings, Epstein sequestered himself in a suite at Nashvilles Opryland Hotel and talked about the 2013 rotation in these terms: We can kind of relax and pick our spots and dont necessarily have to be desperate.
The Tigers felt that sense of urgency.
Sanchez proved he could pitch in the American League by posting a 3.74 ERA in 12 starts after last summers trade with the Marlins. The price only went higher after he looked like a big-game pitcher, going 1-2 with a 1.77 ERA in three postseason starts and helping the Tigers get to the World Series.
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who is 83 years old, desperately wants to get back there and win a title for his city. Those impulses drove Ilitch toward Prince Fielder last winter, and any team built around Verlander and Miguel Cabrera will be thinking about October.
After nearly coming to Chicago and trying to dig out of a 101-loss season Sanchez appears to be a big part of those plans.
This figures to be an interesting reference point for Matt Garza as he recovers from an elbow injury and enters the final year of his contract. Hes 29 years old and playoff-tested with similar career numbers (57-61, 3.84 ERA).
The Garza question has hung over the organization since Epstein took over at Clark and Addison some 14 months ago. The entire philosophy there is turning short-term commodities into long-term assets. It cant be answered until Garza who recently began throwing again proves hes healthy.
Garza was fired up on Thursday night, just like last month, when word spread across Twitter that Carlos Marmol had agreed to a trade to the Los Angeles Angels and it looked like the Cubs were adding Dan Haren to their rotation. That deal fell apart, while this one went in another direction.
Heres how Garza put it on his Twitter account: I'm not welcoming anyone, anymore to the cubs organization! puzzled.
Perhaps the Cubs walked away from the Sanchez deal breathing a sigh of relief, because they know all the data behind long-term contracts and what the completely unnatural act of throwing a baseball 90-plus mph over and over again can do to the human body. But this clandestine pursuit showed players, agents and rival executives that they are willing to get serious about big-time free agents, even if theyre going to have to wait until next winter to find the right player at the right time.