Tanaka to Cubs? Beating out Yankees, Dodgers would be huge upset
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter January 16, 2014 10:30PM
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Updated: February 18, 2014 6:37AM
The biggest name at the Cubs Convention this weekend promises to be the one belonging to the guy who won’t be there — the player who might otherwise provide a major boost of faith in the Cubs’ rebuild.
The player who this month has become the latest litmus test of the Ricketts family’s fortitude as big-market, big-league owners.
When new manager Rick Renteria talked Thursday about the sales pitch the Cubs made to Japanese free agent Masahiro Tanaka last week, it stirred visions of a 25-year-old pitching savior — the sexiest free agent of the winter — leading the rotation into multiple Octobers.
“I actually ordered Rosetta Stone, Japanese version,” said Renteria, speaking from his own nature of boundless optimism than any confidence based on inside knowledge of the Cubs’ chances to land the workhorse right-hander.
In fact, breathless national reports via Twitter and blogs Thursday overshot the Cubs’ likelihood of hanging with the big-spending favorites in New York and Los Angeles in the process, especially when the Dodgers reminded the world of their willingness to spend by giving ace Clayton Kershaw a record-setting contract extension this week — after dealing with the same agent representing Tanaka.
The Cubs, meanwhile, have set aside a sizable chunk of their middle-of-the-pack payroll budget to stay in the Tanaka hunt, sacrificing possible acquisitions early in the offseason to have the wherewithal to make a serious run.
But how serious when it comes to competing with the Dodgers and the pitching-desperate Yankees? The front office, according to sources, is making its strongest bid, based on the limits placed by a debt-strung, skittish-to-spend ownership.
But baseball operations doesn’t have the resources to be able to outspend big-ticket mistakes or to overspend by a lot the projections for a pitcher few industry evaluators consider a No. 1 starter in the majors.
The new $20 million posting ceiling for Japanese players is one of the reasons the Cubs even have a chance, with the ability to postpone payment of up to $6.6 million of it into next year’s budget.
All that effort and maneuverability by the Cubs’ baseball ops still isn’t expected to be enough to convince a 24-0 pitcher to join a last-place team that likely isn’t the highest bidder.
The Cubs’ top baseball officials have steadfastly refused to comment on their pursuit of Tanaka since general manager Jed Hoyer first said in November that the Cubs planned to be involved in the process.
Insiders are said to be skeptical of the Cubs’ ability to win a bidding process they suspect already might have swamped them. They believe the Cubs are prepared to address their rotation needs elsewhere — although where that might be isn’t clear.
For now, they’re relying on the pitch their five-man contingent —including chairman Tom Ricketts and team president Theo Epstein — made to Tanaka and several representatives last week in Los Angeles.
“The points to him were that we’re a club that is on the upside. We’re a club that has a lot of talent besides the guys that we have presently, that the organization has a lot of quality players coming up that are going to significantly impact the organization,” said Renteria, who was part of the group, along with Hoyer and Nao Masamoto, the Cubs’ video coordinator and Pacific liaison, who helped translate.
“I thought it was a good presentation. He’s got a decision to make.”
Ricketts might have been better served by making a cash call on the family, assuming the bank covenants tied to the Cubs’ mammoth purchase debt don’t forbid that. (A source close to the business side of the operation said the family is allowed to spend its own money on players if it chooses.)
The deadline for Tanaka to make his decision under the Japanese posting system is 4 p.m. next Friday.