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Cubs make offer to Anibal Sanchez; Tigers now in the mix

Anibal Sanchez

Anibal Sanchez

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Updated: December 13, 2012 10:14PM

The first big free-agent splash for the Cubs under Theo Epstein didn’t go off exactly the way the Cubs hoped, and by Thursday night it looked more likely to make waves in Detroit than Chicago.

Right-hander Anibal Sanchez — possibly the most valuable free-agent pitcher on the market considering his age, track record and apparent upside — appeared close to a five-year agreement with the Cubs before giving his former club, the Detroit Tigers, a chance to match or beat the deal Thursday night.

The Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels also were involved in pursuing Sanchez. But by Thursday night it was down to the Cubs waiting on him to decide whether he wanted to return to the Tigers, who got an exceptional postseason performance from him and were expected to at least come close to matching the Cubs’ offer, said to be worth $75 million.

The Cubs declined comment as the saga unfolded.

After the Cubs signed swingman Scott Feldman and elbow-rehabbing right-hander Scott Baker to one-year deals last month to fill rotation spots, a Sanchez signing would be the most significant major-league acquisition by far in Epstein’s 14 months as team president.

Nobody expected an investment of this magnitude this winter. None of the Cubs’ major-league free-agent signings under Epstein until now have been for longer than two years. And none have been worth more in total value than outfielder David DeJesus’ $10 million a year ago.

Sanchez, a potential Opening Day starter for the Cubs, has pitched at least 195 innings in each of his three full seasons as a starter the last three years. His WHIP, walks per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratios all improved successively each of those seasons.

In four seasons with at least 16 starts, his ERA hasn’t been higher than 3.87, and after being traded from the Miami Marlins to the Tigers in July, he went on to post a 1.77 ERA in three postseason starts, pitching into the seventh inning each time.

If the recent spike in salaries for mid-level free agents is any indication, a $15 million annual average for a consistent, frontline starter who won’t be 30 until the second year of the deal could quickly look like a bargain, assuming good health.

If Jeff Samardzija performs in the next few years like the top-two starter he appeared to be by the end of last season, Sanchez would give the pitching-poor Cubs’ rotation a significant head start on a playoff shot as position players such as Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and perhaps Jorge Soler become an established everyday core.

That’s a lot of ifs.

But Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer know Sanchez well from his minor-league days in the Boston Red Sox system when Epstein was GM and Hoyer an assistant. During Epstein’s two-month hiatus over an upper-management rift at the end of 2005, with Hoyer and Ben Cherington operating at Boston’s ‘‘co-general managers,’’ the Red Sox traded Sanchez with Hanley Ramirez and others to the Marlins in the Josh Beckett deal.

Epstein was said to be not happy that both Sanchez and Ramirez were included in that deal.

As of late Thursday night, the only question left was whether Sanchez was going to hit Epstein with some déjà vu all over again.

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