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Cubs’ failure to sign Tanaka another blow to Theo’s rebuilding project

Updated: February 24, 2014 1:20PM

An already tough season to sell on the North Side just got a lot tougher with the news Wednesday that the Cubs lost their only big free-agent target of the winter — pitcher Masahiro Tanaka — to the New York Yankees.

That the Yankees landed the 25-year-old Japanese right-hander wasn’t a surprise to many in the organization despite a steady stream of exaggerated media reports in recent days proclaiming the Cubs’ willingness and ability to make sure they weren’t outbid by anybody.

The Yankees were the favorites from the start for all the reasons that eventually led to Tanaka’s ­decision: the alpha status of the city, the chance to win immediately, the successful experiences of other Japanese players in the Bronx and an urgent need for starting pitching that led to a seven-year, $155 million offer that dwarfed the Cubs’ and others.

That doesn’t include the $20 million posting fee that goes to Tanaka’s Japanese club and raises the commitment to $175 million, a level the Cubs’ baseball department did not have the resources to challenge.

As it was, Theo Epstein’s front office set aside as much payroll room as possible given other contract obligations to make an aggressive run at the rare opportunity to land a pre-prime-impact free agent with an elite pro track record who would fill a long-term need in the Cubs’ rebuilding process.

Some reports suggest that the Cubs made an offer in excess of $150 million and had a seventh year on the table — both of which were shot down by multiple sources. One source from a team involved in the process said it appeared the Yankees were the only team that offered seven years.

More likely, based on multiple sources, the Cubs’ offer did not beat the Yankees in years or annual average.

Regardless, the fallout of the Tanaka pursuit for the Cubs in the short term means:

◆ They will carry much of the roughly $20 million set aside in their sub-$100 million payroll budget into next winter for the chance to have a better shot at the next big acquisition they pursue. This was an option Epstein suggested Saturday during the Cubs Convention.

“The last couple of years, we’ve spent every single dollar available to us by this point in the off-season,” Epstein said then. “We’ve kept a little bit of our powder dry. We’re always looking for opportunities to add impact players who are the right age. So you want to put yourself in a position to have a chance to do that.”

◆ The remaining money in the budget isn’t likely to help sign Jeff Samardzija. In fact, the Cubs’ Opening Day starter said over the weekend that he was using the Tanaka situation as a barometer to measure the Cubs’ competitive future and, by extension, his desire to stay. Losing Tanaka might have hurt the chances to retain Samardzija.

◆ Meanwhile, they’ll fill the starting-rotation void they hoped to fill with Tanaka by seeking a short-term, smaller-priced solution from the pitchers who remain on the market.

◆ Internal attendance projections that estimated another 300,000 drop from last year — to 2.3 million — could be even worse after the unrealistically high hopes created by some of the exaggerated reports that suggested the Cubs were favorites.

Cubs officials declined to comment on the process or the outcome.

But make no mistake, said one rival executive: “Today was a huge day for them. They needed to get this guy.”

The exec said that’s not only ­because of the declining faith among the fan base in what the Cubs are selling for the third-highest ticket prices in the game. There’s also a perception developing within the industry that the Cubs’ business plan won’t support the planned baseball renaissance.

That would be a lot bigger loss than any pitcher.


Twitter: @GDubCub

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