Masahiro Tanaka might be the only name out there that would energize Cubs fans in a winter defined by Jeff Samardzija trade rumors and non-updates on the Wrigley Field renovation.
The Cubs plan to be in the Tanaka sweepstakes, according to sources familiar with the situation, but that pursuit has been framed as a “long shot,” given the new mid-market reality at Clark and Addison.
Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball unveiled a revised posting agreement on Monday, capping the “release fee” at $20 million. There have already been enough lost-in-translation moments in the Tanaka coverage. But if the Rakuten Golden Eagles make their 25-year-old ace available, they will spark a bidding war.
Two industry sources with knowledge of the team’s financial picture said there’s no chance, predicting the Cubs will be out of the running. One club official questioned why they would pour $100 million into one player when there are so many holes in the roster. Another stressed the considerable risk in giving a pitcher a megadeal.
Privately, team sources have doubts but still acknowledge Tanaka would be a great fit as a long-term piece on the North Side. The right-hander went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season and saved Game 7 in Japan’s version of the World Series.
Scouts have described Tanaka as a legitimate No. 2 starter, saying he’s no Yu Darvish but still someone who can be a difference-maker right away.
Where the old system forced blind bids — and granted one team exclusive negotiating rights — this would essentially be a $20 million tax on a free-agent contract. At that point, two executives weren’t sure how many teams could be in play: At least 10? As many as 25? Why not all 30?
This could be another defining moment for the highly leveraged $845 million deal that Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. and the Ricketts family made in October 2009 (which included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago). The Cubs once thought they made aggressive bids for Darvish and Hyun-Jin Ryu — only to be blown away by the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers, respectively.
If Tanaka winds up with the New York Yankees or another free-spending big-market team, it would be another missed opportunity while waiting for the new stadium revenues and television deals.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein left it open-ended last week at the winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where a lot of the buzz involved Tanaka.
“We’re just waiting for the process to begin,” Epstein said, “and to see what the rules are and wait until we get to the point where we can express interest to the people who matter and try to execute a game plan. But we’ll probably be one of 30 teams trying to do that.”
The new posting agreement will run for three years, while Tanaka can become an international free agent in two years. What’s $20 million to the Golden Eagles? Their owner, Hiroshi Mikitani, is a Harvard Business School graduate with a net worth Forbes estimated at $6.4 billion.
That New England connection came up when Epstein left the Boston Red Sox in November 2005 as part of the general manager’s power struggle on Yawkey Way. Epstein doesn’t know Mikitani personally but did meet with a Golden Eagles representative in Boston.
“When I was away from the Red Sox for a couple months, someone reached out on the club’s behalf to see if I’d be interested in either working there or being a consultant,” Epstein recalled. “I had lunch with a person and decided at age 31 that I probably wanted to stay over here. But it was interesting, and I had a little bit of dialogue with them.”
This time, the Cubs want to make their recruiting pitch to Tanaka.