Most of the talks we have heard have the Yankees as the favorites to land Masahiro Tanaka. The fact that the Yankees may or may not have a ceiling makes it less of a slam dunk than prior negotiations with Japanese players, such as Hideki Matsui. Many teams are figured to be in the mix as the $20 million posting fee fits most teams budgets. As recent as this past week, it seemed as if the Yankees, Dodgers and Angels were all but declared the finalists. The Cubs, Mariners and possibly the Diamondbacks still had interest. A report today has raised the level of interest of the Cubs in Tanaka. And while my initial intuition has faded over the course of the past month, that intuition was that the Cubs would land Tanaka in the first place.
It has been severely understated exactly how much Cubs President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer love Tanaka. As early as 2009, when Epstein was the Boston Red Sox GM and Hoyer was the assistant GM, both were raving about Tanaka, who at the time was 21. This reason was the one I most referred to in my thoughts that the Cubs and Tanaka would be a fit.
The Cubs have had the history of being a high spending team. Since Epstein and Hoyer have joined the Cubs front office, the team has not spent at the rate that they had in prior seasons. The intention was to rebuild the farm system with the thought of eventually adding payroll when the talent was ready to produce at the major league level. Prior to the new regime, the Cubs had a payroll of $134 million for the 2011 season. In 2010, the Cubs payroll was $144 million, $135 in 2009 and $118 in 2008. The Cubs payroll was $109 million in 2012, $107 million last season and currently is projected to be $77.9 million for this coming season. If Tanaka means that much to Epstein and Hoyer, the Cubs are in perfect position to make a significant offer. While some teams may have to slightly backload the deal, the Cubs can pay Tanaka well for the entire deal.
Another interesting thought that think the Cubs are preparing to make a splash is the situation going on with their arbitration eligible players. While the majority of MLB teams have few remaining cases that have not been resolved, the Cubs are planning to go to arbitration with four players. The Cubs had 8 eligible players, having settled with Nate Schierholtz ($5 million), James Russell ($1.775), Pedro Strop ($1.325) and Luis Valbuena (%1.71 million. The most interesting players that have not come to an agreement are starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood. Despite going 8-13, 4.34 for the Cubs last season, Samardzija finished 2013 with 2014 Ks in 213 2/3 IP. Wood had a breakout season, finishing 9-12, 3.11 in 200 IP. Both pitchers are worth more than what the Cubs are offering, Samardzija at $4.4 million and Wood at $3.5 million. In my opinion, an agreement would have been reached with both if the Cubs were not saving the pennies for Tanaka. Both Darwin Barney and Justin Ruggiano are also likely going to arbitration with Barney at $1.8-$2.8 and Ruggiano at $1.6-$2.45. Both disparities are not much for a middle agreement to be fair.
Obviously we look at both Los Angeles teams as the high spenders in MLB right now. The Yankees have not spent at the same rate over the past couple seasons but are always considered a threat. Based on the direction of the three teams, all three are expected to look at Tanaka as a pitcher that can better their chances to win. That is why the Cubs have been ruled out. I believe the Cubs have put themselves in position where can go all in on Tanaka. I have every reason to believe that the Cubs will make one of the highest, if not the highest offer for his services. The question will be whether he wants to play for the Cubs, play in the midwest and thinks the Cubs are going in the right direction.