There was a time — and not too long ago — Cubs were destination
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter April 17, 2014 8:14PM
New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka delivers in the third inning of Game 1 of an interleague baseball doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs at Yankee Stadium in New York, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) ORG XMIT: NYY107
REDS AT CUBS
Friday: Alfredo Simon (1-1, 1.20 ERA) vs. Jeff Samardzija (0-1, 1.29 ERA), 1:20 p.m., Ch. 9, 720-AM.
Saturday: Tony Cingrani (1-1, 2.60)
vs. Edwin Jackson (0-1, 6.19),
1:20 p.m., CSN, 720-AM.
Sunday: Mike Leake (1-1, 2.45)
vs. Carlos Villanueva (1-3, 11.57), 1:20 p.m., Ch. 26, 720-AM.
Updated: April 18, 2014 4:36PM
NEW YORK — Alfonso Soriano spent much of his time in the Yankees’ clubhouse early Wednesday talking about his losing seasons with the Cubs and the trade to New York last summer that he thinks will give him a shot at reaching another World Series.
A few hours later, Masahiro Tanaka spent much of his postgame media time at the other end of the Yankees’ clubhouse trying to sidestep questions about what he thought of the Cubs — whether he’s glad he didn’t take their $120 million to pitch at Wrigley Field and how much better it is to play for a 27-time champion — after shutting them out.
All the while, off to the side sat left-hander CC Sabathia, a quiet reminder of a time — maybe the only time in the four decades of free agency — that the Cubs could compete with the Yankees as a top destination for big-time players with choices.
Now the Cubs don’t come close to competing with the Yankees at any level. They were shut out in both ends of a doubleheader Wednesday to fall to 4-10.
Sabathia doesn’t know how the Cubs went from penthouse to poorhouse in five years. But the top free-agent pitcher on the market in 2008-09 does know this: ‘‘I had interest in going [there], especially at that time, because they still had Derrek Lee and some of those good players. [Carlos] Zambrano was still there. It was a pretty good team.’’
Even better than the Yankees, who had just missed the playoffs and won eight fewer games than the Cubs in 2008. So much better in Sabathia’s mind that, according to team sources, he told Lee to let management know he wanted to sign with the Cubs.
Sabathia said he doesn’t remember all the details, ‘‘but I definitely talked to everybody I could. My agent did talk to the Cubs. I don’t know how far those talks went.’’
They went about as far as the Cubs’ budget, which is to say nowhere. As Sam Zell got closer to an agreement to sell the team to the Ricketts family, two years of ownership-mandated big spending on players was abruptly frozen.
That same winter, the Cubs were close to swinging a deal for San Diego Padres right-hander Jake Peavy, who had agreed to renegotiate the terms of his contract to fit the Cubs’ long-term projections and was so fired up to be coming to Chicago that he was seen singing ‘‘Go, Cubs, Go’’ in a bar near the winter meetings in Las Vegas the night before the money was frozen.
Sabathia went on to finish among the top four in Cy Young voting the next three seasons for the Yankees and helped them win the World Series in 2009.
The Cubs, meanwhile, haven’t had a winning season since 2009, and their most recent free-agent experiences include losing Tanaka to the Yankees and winding up with Edwin Jackson two winters ago after Anibal Sanchez used their pursuit as leverage to drive up interest from the Tigers.
As Sabathia sat in the Yankees’ clubhouse, he reflected on signing in New York.
‘‘If you say you want to be a winner, this is the place to come,’’ he said. ‘‘They do whatever they can every offseason to try to put the best team out on the field.’’
Which, strange to think now, describes how he once viewed the Cubs.
‘‘Yeah, at that time,’’ he said. ‘‘Picking a team as a free agent, you want to pick a place where you would think you have a chance to win for a long time. And, obviously, [Chicago] was one of the places I thought about.’’
These days, for players such as Sabathia — and, it seems, Soriano and Tanaka — the Cubs are little more than afterthoughts.