Cubs have reason to covet Tanaka, but chances are it’s not mutual

Would Masahiro Tanaka really come all this way to struggle through a losing season in Chicago?

Junko Kimura/Getty Images

In recent weeks, the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees have been characterized as the strongest suitors for Japanese pitching star Masahiro Tanaka.

That is no surprise. They are the biggest-spending teams in their respective leagues.

But the Chicago Cubs might need him even more.

The Dodgers fell two wins shy of the World Series last year and are one major league starter short of completing their 2014 rotation. The Yankees, who haven’t missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons in two decades, need a pitcher of Tanaka’s caliber to offset the start of CC Sabathia’s decline.

The Cubs’ motivation is harder to define, beyond a need to re-establish their competitive relevance on the major league landscape. They aren’t viewed as serious contenders to make the playoffs this year, much less win the World Series. However, the Cubs have a real obligation to deliver results at the major league level in the third season under president of baseball operations Theo Epstein.

The Cubs’ farm system is lauded as one of the industry’s best, with prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora among those earning rave reviews from talent evaluators. When I polled scouts as to which team had the best group of players in the 2013 Arizona Fall League, the answers were virtually unanimous: the Cubs. But that’s not enough to post a new pennant on the Wrigley grandstand.

AROUND THE HORN

And so the Cubs are stuck, recovering from the old way (perpetual one-year plans), subsisting on an outdated economic model (low television revenue, lack of in-stadium advertising) and waiting for the kids to arrive. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer don’t have the payroll advantages they enjoyed in Boston. They’ve compounded the problem by signing Edwin Jackson and Starlin Castro to contracts totaling more than $110 million; neither was very good in 2013.

Why the fascination with Tanaka? Well, he’s a 25-year-old pitcher with All-Star potential who would not cost prospects or a draft pick. (The Cubs, who have been bothered by the basic agreement’s spending limits on amateur talent, are reluctant to surrender draft picks and the associated bonus-pool money.) So, it’s only money.

OK, maybe I shouldn’t say that. It’s a lot of money, possibly $120 million or more (including the release fee paid to Tanaka’s Japanese club). But Epstein and Hoyer understand the Japanese market — they signed Daisuke Matsuzaka and Junichi Tazawa for the Red Sox — and undoubtedly made a strong appeal to owner Tom Ricketts. Until the Cubs acquire a true No. 1 starter, which Tanaka might be, they have no chance to challenge their pitching-rich rivals from St. Louis.

Tanaka wants to pitch in a major market. The Cubs obviously fulfill that need. But Tanaka has a strong desire to win right away, and do so in an environment conducive to his personal success. If the money is equal, the Cubs would have a difficult time beating the Dodgers or Yankees at the bargaining table on those points.

The Dodgers can offer a pitcher-friendly ballpark, better run support, ideal weather, closer proximity to Japan, and less pressure in a rotation with aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. In many ways, it’s difficult to imagine a better set of circumstances.

As a Yankee, Tanaka would be asked to face American League East lineups in bandbox ballparks along the East Coast. With the Cubs, he’d need to be the ace right away while knowing that he might go 8-15 even if his ERA is 3.30.

Most fans realize that win-loss records aren’t the best way to evaluate pitchers, but I can tell you that the pitchers themselves still care about them. And Tanaka isn’t leaving home, where he is beloved, to go 8-15 on a losing team in the National League Central.

In time, I believe, Epstein and Hoyer will get it right. They need the prospects to develop while the major league product improves. Tanaka is exactly what the Cubs need to hasten their rebuild and re-energize the fan base. But unless they overpay massively — which is not Ricketts’ style — I have a hard time thinking they’re going to get him.

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