Cubs focusing on Tanaka, Samardzija at winter meetings

Cubs focusing on Tanaka, Samardzija at winter meetings
December 8, 2013, 8:00 pm
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If the business/baseball plans come together at Wrigley Field, the Cubs will be in on just about every major player — and some of the rumors might actually be true.

But team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will be focused on two big names when the winter meetings begin on Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — Masahiro Tanaka and Jeff Samardzija.

The industry is waiting for Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball to unveil a new posting agreement and find out if Tanaka will become available. The Japanese pitcher starred for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles last season, going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and leading his team to a Nippon Series title.

The Cubs will be in the Tanaka sweepstakes because he’s only 25 years old and would make sense as a long-term piece in this rebuild. But if the new system caps the posting fee at $20 million, then it’s just a $20 million surcharge to a bidding war that’s expected to involve the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and all the usual suspects.

Is that worth it for the Golden Eagles? Their owner is not some amateur: Hiroshi Mikitani is a Harvard Business School graduate with a net worth Forbes estimated at $6.4 billion.

[MORE: Cubs: Theo sticking to the plan amid Hot Stove madness]

In a frantic offseason, teams have already committed roughly $1.24 billion to free agents, according to MLBTradeRumors.com. It’s unclear if the Cubs will have the wherewithal to sign even one high-profile player this winter while waiting to cash in on the stadium renovation and new television deals.

“We don’t like having days (where) there are big trades and free-agent signings and we’re sitting it out,” Epstein said on “SportsTalk Live” last week. “But there will be a day real soon where we’re right in the middle of that because we have more financial flexibility, because we have lots of talented young players, assets that everyone wants around the game. And we’re going to be the ones dictating all those big moves.”

Epstein dominated the headlines the last time the industry gathered at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin in December 2010, engineering two blockbuster deals that were supposed to remake the Boston Red Sox for years to come.

That week the Cubs signed Carlos Pena to a one-year, $10 million pillow contract that had to be spread out over 13 months and three fiscal years. That set off alarm bells about the restrictive conditions that were part of Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. selling the team to the Ricketts family in a uniquely leveraged $845 million deal (that included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago).

Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford cost the Red Sox nearly $300 million, plus a package of prospects that included future Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo. There’s no chance they would have won the 2013 World Series without shipping Gonzalez and Crawford to the Dodgers the year before in a financial reset.

[RELATED: Cubs looking at Axford in search for potential closer]

The Cubs are nearing a tipping point with Samardzija, who remains under club control for two more seasons at a time when the franchise is ramping up for 2016 and beyond. Samardzija’s camp confirmed nothing has really changed since last winter, when talks about a long-term extension gained no momentum.

After years of shifting between the bullpen and the rotation and commuting from Triple-A Iowa to Chicago, Samardzija simply wants to let this play out and establish himself as a No. 1 starter before signing a new deal.

Samardzija will turn 29 next month and already set himself up with that $10 million contract out of the University of Notre Dame. He’s coming off an up-and-down season in which he went 8-13 with a 4.34 ERA and notched 214 strikeouts in 213.2 innings.

The two sides have different definitions of market value. The skyrocketing price of pitching could force a Samardzija trade.

“I think there’s mutual desire, but sometimes the economics of the game make things difficult and just the situation can create a gap,” Epstein said. “I’m not going to provide a running play-by-play, but there’s really no new developments. We’ll address it if something comes to pass. It’s really in the same place it’s been.”

[MORE: Rick Renteria expects Cubs to show some fight]

This is a completely different role for Epstein, who mentioned how “it’s strange walking around” here “and being a little irrelevant” during a Q&A with the New York Post at last month’s GM meetings.

Another trip to Orlando means dreaming about a brighter future. As Epstein explained: “We want to be sitting there going into the winter meetings being like: ‘OK, we’ve got our starting lineup. We’ve got our starting rotation. We’ve got our bullpen.’ We want to be game-planning for: ‘What happens if our starting centerfielder gets injured? What’s our redundancy? What happens if we lose a starting pitcher because of injury? Who’s our seventh starter? Who’s our eighth starter?’

“Those are the things that playoff teams do. And to get there, you need to have lots of talent in the organization, lots of young talent coming up. You need to have scouting and player development functioning at a high level. You need financial flexibility that comes — yes, with resources — but also with young players. If we have star players making minimum salary, that’s going to allow us to go out and drop a huge nut on somebody else. All those things are coming, but we can’t speed it up. We can’t make time go faster.”