Can Theo's sales pitch bring Masahiro Tanaka to Cubs?

Can Theo's sales pitch bring Masahiro Tanaka to Cubs?
January 19, 2014, 5:30 pm
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The Cubs will soon find out if their sales pitch worked on Masahiro Tanaka, the Japanese pitcher who could give the entire franchise an image makeover, at least for a few minutes on Twitter.

All along, the Cubs planned to make an aggressive, nine-figure offer for Tanaka. But that decision would be made without the sense of win-now desperation — or safety net of big-market resources — that will drive a team like the New York Yankees.

The Cubs, Yankees, White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks have submitted formal proposals for Tanaka, according to a Japanese media report from Nikkan Sports. The sense is this will come down close to Friday’s deadline. But multiple sources have doubted the Cubs would be able to make the kind of blow-away offer — plus the $20 million release fee — it will take for a rebuilding team to win this bidding war.

The five most memorable words from the Cubs Convention that closed Sunday had to be: “Clark is here to stay.” But for all the snarky mascot tweets and social-media backlash, the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers became a safe zone for the Ricketts family, Theo Epstein’s front office and Crane Kenney’s business operations department.

[MORE: While waiting for Tanaka decision, Theo defends Cubs ownership]

The Cubs have already won the hearts and minds in those hotel ballrooms. Epstein doesn’t naturally enjoy retail politics, and he hates the idea of being the face of the franchise. But he signed autographs and posed for pictures as fans held up iPhones after he laid out his vision during one Q&A session.

“If I was sitting there as a fan of the Chicago Cubs following the offseason, I would have hoped for more this winter, frankly, to be honest with you,” Epstein said. “I would have hoped for bigger names and bigger investments and more change.”

Tanaka would change the entire perception of this winter. After one fan finally made it through a rambling question about the World Series timeline, wondering what to tell the young Cubs fans in her family, Epstein gave an answer that probably echoed the recruiting pitch to Tanaka during a recent meeting in the Los Angeles area.

“You can tell your nieces and nephews that they’re fans of an organization with the second-best farm system in baseball,” Epstein said, “with a developing young core that’s going to be here for a long time. It’s going to be the heart of teams that are contending, year-in, year-out for the postseason and therefore the World Series. In a few years, they’re going to be playing in a renovated Wrigley Field.

“And that if you were betting on any organization in baseball over the long-term — that’s why I’m here — I would bet on the Cubs.”

[RELATED: No guarantees for WGN as Cubs look at next TV deal]

But the Cubs are still a last-place team that would be a leap of faith for Tanaka, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season with the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

“I think any team in baseball would love a 25-year-old starting pitcher,” said Jason McLeod, the vice president of scouting and player development. “We’ve scouted him extensively over the years (through) our pro scouting staff and a lot of video work that we’ve done on him. So the evaluation process is complete.

“He’s obviously talented. We understand — I think everyone understands — that’s not the same level of competition (in) Japan. But he’s a talented pitcher, and I’m sure the team that gets him is going to be happy.”

The sense is that being on the team that finally wins the World Series at Wrigley Field won’t mean as much to a foreign player, though Chicago does have a strong Japanese community. Tanaka’s wife is a pop star in Japan, and family considerations will be a factor. And any big-time free agent looking to win right away would have to buy into “The Cubs Way.”

[MORE: Years of scouting make Cubs feel Tanaka worth the gamble]

“Sometimes when you take on a challenge,” Epstein said, “you know you’re going to be unpopular for a few years. You know you’re going to wear it for a few years, individually and as an organization. But if you’re tough and you have discipline, you know there’s going to be pay-off for everyone.

“That’s what makes it worthwhile. No one would want to come into a situation where it’s all on a silver platter for you, and you just show up and get the accolades that you don’t even deserve. We’re trying to build this thing the right way, from the ground up.

“We want to deliver (as) soon as we can, but we’re not going to stray from our vision.”