MESA, Ariz. — The unfounded rumors teased Cubs fans hoping Masahiro Tanaka would sign on to become the latest savior at Wrigley Field.
Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department understood it would be a long shot, but that didn’t stop the runaway speculation. General manager Jed Hoyer walked out of the Rule 5 draft and was surrounded by Japanese reporters at the winter meetings. New manager Rick Renteria came away from a meeting with Tanaka’s camp in Southern California joking about ordering Rosetta Stone tapes.
Something got lost in translation, because it was a quiet Saturday morning at Cubs Park, while the international media swarmed George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., to watch Tanaka’s first official workout with the New York Yankees.
“It’s a good thing that everybody was talking about him,” Kyuji Fujikawa said through an interpreter. “I’m sure he can show (what) all the fuss was about. He has a strong heart, so he shouldn’t have a problem in New York. He’s used to it.”
Fujikawa and Tanaka played together on the Japanese team that won the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Fujikawa was coy when asked if he had contacted Tanaka during the recruiting process. Fujikawa had saved more than 200 games for the Hanshin Tigers but pitched only 12 innings last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery.
“It’s just a code that we don’t really talk about that,” Fujikawa said. “For me, I didn’t really talk to anybody about it when I was coming over.
“I can’t really say much about Tanaka. I just want to say that last year wasn’t my real self.”
Fujikawa said he hasn’t thrown off a mound yet, but he has been doing long/light toss five or six times a week. One projection could have him pitching out of the Cubs bullpen by June, one year after his elbow reconstruction.
By then, the Cubs figure to be gearing up for another fire sale at the trade deadline. Signing Tanaka would have brought some credibility to the organization’s hope-and-change message, taken heat off the overhyped prospects and maybe moved the needle a little bit in the Jeff Samardzija negotiations.
But the Tanaka drama had a predictable conclusion. The Yankees blew the Cubs away with a seven-year, $155 million megadeal for a 25-year-old pitcher who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles last season.
“This would make The Boss proud,” general manager Brian Cashman said at the Yankee Stadium press conference last week. “This is Steinbrenner big.”
With their rebuilding timeline, the Cubs couldn’t give Tanaka an opt-out clause after four years, and the negotiations never got to a point where they would have to consider bending their no-trade policy. Going far beyond a six-year, $120 million offer — which didn’t include the $20 million release fee for his Japanese club — could have crippled the baseball operations budget.
Plus, there was the sense that Tanaka didn’t want to go to a last-place team anyway. Flying from Tokyo, he reportedly spent around $200,000 to charter a 787 Dreamliner for a small entourage that included his pop-star wife and a poodle.
“I’ve heard that this place can be very harsh to you at times,” Tanaka said through a translator at his welcome-to-New York photo op. “I just wanted to put myself in this environment and see where I can go with my ability.”