MESA, Ariz. — Masahiro Tanaka would have completely changed the mood around here.
Imagine the scene if Tanaka was wearing a red-white-and-blue uniform for Friday’s first official workout for pitchers and catchers. The paparazzi would have been staking out the entrance to the complex and clicking away. The national writers and Japanese media would have crowded the clubhouse. The networks would be lining up live shots in the Arizona sunshine.
It’s hard to picture a better advertisement for Cubs Park.
Instead, the Cubs announced a deal with another sign-and-flip guy, Jason Hammel, and revealed Jake Arrieta’s shoulder tightness while waiting for the trade market to develop with Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija.
Two Japanese reporters did follow ex-closer Kyuji Fujikawa — who’s recovering from Tommy John surgery — and his interpreter into the parking lot late Thursday morning when they popped out of a dining-room exit door.
This is Year 3 for Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations who tried to put a positive spin on it: “There’s a real dichotomy between how the organization is perceived from the outside and how we look at it internally.
“There is a tremendous amount of talent in this organization.
But no one builds entirely through the farm system. A 25-year-old ace would have fit perfectly into the long-range business/baseball plans on the North Side.
The Cubs waited out almost the entire winter, saving up for their Tanaka bid, only to watch the predictable ending: The New York Yankees blew away their six-year, $120 million offer. That megadeal goes for seven years at $155 million, with an opt-out clause after four seasons and no-trade rights, plus the $20 million release fee for Tanaka’s Japanese club.
A big-market team is left talking about “keeping the powder dry.”
“In the two previous offseasons, we’ve spent every dollar available to us,” Epstein said. “This is the first winter where we ended up keeping some in reserve to be used on players — hopefully prime-age, impact-type players down the road. But it certainly gives us a bit of a leg up as we look towards next winter — or an in-season move that might make the present and the future better.”
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As the Tanaka rumors were flying during last month’s Cubs Convention, president of business operations Crane Kenney made a point to say: “We have resources. And when we need them, they will be there.”
This is a franchise that hasn’t won a World Series since 1908, or a playoff game since 2003, while finishing in fifth place four straight seasons (and developing a reputation as the most profitable team in baseball). The financial situation colors how Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer view every negotiation. It influences each transaction and every spot on the 25-man roster.
The 2014 payroll is projected to be south of $100 million, at a time when Major League Baseball’s revenues have soared past $8 billion and a restrictive collective bargaining agreement has already slashed spending in the draft and international market.
Chairman Tom Ricketts has acknowledged that debt has been a factor while dealing with the conditions imposed by Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. in the $845 million deal that was finalized in October 2009 (and included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago).
The Cubs are waiting for the Wrigley Field renovation and new TV deals. Shifting the Tanaka resources could be interpreted as uncertainty about where the money has been going or where it might be moved next offseason.
“Rather than just spend the money to spend it,” Epstein said, “if we can book that and have that available to us, maybe (we can) sign that international free agent who comes along in the middle of the summer. Or (use it to) acquire a player in a trade who carries a significant salary but fits for the long-term.
“Or just start out next offseason knowing that we can be a little bit more aggressive on the guys we really want early, because that money will be available to us. That made more sense than just spending it now to spend it.”
Cubs fans running out of patience with all the minor-league talk might have heard this one before: Wait until next year.
“The people in this organization really believe that we’re on the verge of something special,” Epstein said. “We understand that we’re perceived otherwise, and that’s our fault, because we’ve been a last-place club. We’re not protesting, but we need to earn our way into a position where we’re championship contenders on an annual basis. We feel like that is certainly moving in the right direction.”