Theo looks for next Ellsbury as Cubs wait to enter Tanaka sweepstakes

Theo looks for next Ellsbury as Cubs wait to enter Tanaka sweepstakes
December 4, 2013, 11:45 pm
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Jacoby Ellsbury is a billboard for The Cubs Way.

Not the corporation that just followed Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens and Johnny Damon to the dark side of the rivalry and grabbed a seven-year, $153 million contract from the New York Yankees.

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It’s the guy who played with Darwin Barney at Oregon State University before being drafted and developed by the Boston Red Sox.

“It just means we have to go out and do it again,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Wednesday on Comcast SportsNet’s “SportsTalk Live.”

The case for or against signing Ellsbury was strictly an academic exercise. If Scott Boras sensed any chance of steering Ellsbury to the Cubs – or even simply using them as leverage in the media – would the super-agent have torched the team’s rebuilding plan during his “Meet the Parents” riff at last month’s GM meetings?

The spending restrictions were put in place as Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. sold the team to the Ricketts family in October 2009 through a complicated $845 million transaction (which included a stake in CSN). That made another megadeal a non-starter right now. 

It will be a factor in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, sources said, no matter what shape the posting system ultimately takes in a new agreement between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball.

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If the posting fee gets capped at $20 million and the Japanese ace is allowed to shop for offers – as multiple reports suggested in the middle of what has been messy negotiations – then the Cubs could again be a runner-up in another bidding war.

With the Wrigley Field renovation and new television deals on the horizon, Cubs executives with Red Sox connections will have to remember the dynamic outfielder they selected with the 23rd overall pick in the 2005 draft.

That was long before the New York tabloids screamed: “ELLSBURY DOUGH BOY.”

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“When I see a deal like that, I say: ‘Look, (who) wouldn’t rather have the first seven years of a star player’s career for $30 million versus the second seven years for $130 million or $150 million?’” Epstein said. “You want the first seven years for $30 million and hopefully you work out a deal and you can keep him. But if we have drafts like that in Boston – that same draft (produced) Clay Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie – those are the type of drafts that make an organization more healthy.

“Jacoby Ellsbury debuted with the Red Sox in 2007, they won a World Series. His career with the Red Sox ended in 2013, they won a World Series. Seven years of club control were marked by World Series at either end. That’s the type of impact that good drafts and a good young player can make.”

Ellsbury is already 30 years old with a game built around speed and athleticism. He also has a reputation for being injury-prone. He led the American League in stolen bases three times and won a Gold Glove in 2011. That year, he hit 32 of his 65 career home runs and finished second in the MVP voting.

Tanaka fits the profile for the Cubs in that he’s only 25 years old and coming off a dominant season (24-0, 1.27 ERA) with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. But those qualities also make Tanaka attractive to virtually every other team in baseball.

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“We’re in the market for impact pitching,” Epstein said. “We prefer guys in their prime or going into their prime, guys under control for a long time. So anyone that fits that description we’ll be really interested in – and be as aggressive as we possibly can be.”

Don’t expect the Cubs to make a huge splash at next week’s winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. They won’t sell low on Jeff Samardzija. They will keep shopping for more Wesley Wrights. They need to be right about these prospects.

“We may someday sign a player for $153 million,” Epstein said. “I hope that we do. And I hope that it’s the right player. And I hope it’s a younger free agent that can make a real impact. But that’s not what’s going to win us a World Series. It might help someday. But what’s going to win a World Series is producing a lot of Jacoby Ellsburys.”