All that buzz about Masahiro Tanaka helps create the illusion for Cubs fans that everything is going to be all right.
But when the season-ticket holders step up to the microphones on Saturday at Cubs Convention, there will be tough questions for the Ricketts family, Theo Epstein’s front office and Crane Kenney’s business operations department. There will be awkward moments inside the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers.
There have been four straight fifth-place finishes since the Ricketts family bought the team (and a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago). There are the 197 losses in two seasons since Epstein took over at Clark and Addison. And there’s the whole 100-years-and-counting thing since the Cubs won the World Series.
Enter Tanaka, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. All along, the Cubs have planned to make an aggressive bid for the 25-year-old Japanese pitcher, because he profiles like a No. 2 starter and fits into their long-range vision.
But sources insist all the Twitter speculation about the Cubs doesn’t match up with the realistic sense inside the organization that a big-money team like the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers will probably go all-out to sign Tanaka.
The Cubs are projected to have a payroll south of $100 million this season. Heading into Year 3, have you gotten the financial resources you expected when you left the Boston Red Sox?
“There can’t be any hard-and-set expectations,” Epstein said. “It’s a dynamic landscape that constantly changes. We were all hopeful of getting some public money for the ballpark and it didn’t happen, so we went out on our own. Those are just audibles, things that happen along the way that you have to adjust with.”
The biggest stories this winter have been MascotGate and the stalled Wrigley Field renovations. Epstein wrote off the social-media backlash to “Clark the Cub” as the “natural byproduct of the vacuum that’s been created” in a slow offseason.
“All those things fade away when we get to where we want to be as a baseball organization,” Epstein said. “What I want the conversation to be – and it will be in the future – is: ‘I’m not sure the Cubs’ eighth starter is deep enough. What if three guys go down in the rotation? I don’t think that pitcher at Double-A is quite ready yet, so we need to sign a long guy to step into the rotation. (And) I’m not really sure the Cubs’ backup catcher is good enough. (And) the division’s a little bit more left-handed now…’
“That should be the narrative as a baseball organization and it will be as our baseball plan moves forward and our business plan moves forward. We’re going to become a lot more relevant. I’m not going to sit here and complain about it in the meantime. We’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. We’re a last-place team.”
Still, the Cubs made their pitch to Tanaka last week in Southern California, selling a deep farm system and what could be a sleeping giant with a renovated stadium and new TV deals. Tanaka’s camp sat down with Epstein, chairman Tom Ricketts, general manager Jed Hoyer, manager Rick Renteria and video coordinator/Pacific liaison/interpreter Nao Masamoto.
“I’m going to respect the request for confidentiality that’s come from the agent and the player and just let things play out,” Epstein said. “I can echo what’s already been in the media, which is he’s a very talented 25-year-old pitcher who’s proven everything that he can in Japan and is looking forward to the next challenge in Major League Baseball. That doesn’t happen everyday. He’s a valuable commodity, so we’ll see what happens.”
Tanaka has until Jan. 24 to sign his nine-figure contract, and these deals usually come down to the deadline, which means Cubs staffers and Chicago reporters will keep joking about who might pop out of that mascot costume.
“We’re never going to lose sight of our plan,” Epstein said. “We’re never going to sign a player just to appease the fans or media. We’re never going to sign a player just so a convention goes better.”