[Ed. - This contemplative article comes courtesy of the inimitable Sahadev Sharma. Follow him on Twitter here.]
Ever since it became clear that the new posting system would essentially make Masahiro Tanaka a free agent, I’ve debated just how wise it would be for the Chicago Cubs to do everything in their power to make sure they get him. What that likely means is doing a nice sell job to Tanaka on the Cubs while also offering the most money. With the Yankees and Mariners clearly involved and willing to probably get a little crazy, it appears Tanaka could very likely command a six-year deal with an AAV north of $20M.
The question for me has never been whether the Cubs should pursue Tanaka. He’s a 25-year old pitcher who scouts believe has top of the rotation potential and he doesn’t cost the Cubs prospects or a draft pick, just money. Of course, both his age and how spending money will affect the Cubs are both issues that need more exploration and I’ll get to that in short order. However, just looking at the face of it, there is no major reason why the Cubs shouldn’t make Tanaka their top priority. He’s potentially one of the rarest commodities in the game, and fills a major need for a team desperate for some infusion of high-end talent at the Major League level.
But in Tanaka’s case, it’s not nearly as simple as saying, “He’s 25.” And in the Cubs’ case, right now, it doesn’t appear to be as simple as saying, “It’s just money.”
Money seems to be a legit issue for this team. It’s possible the reason we’ve seen such little action thus far from the Cubs is to ensure that they have the financial flexibility to pursue Tanaka. But, from what I know, while their main focus this offseason has been to sign Tanaka, they just weren’t enamored with what else was available on the open market at the prices it was costing. So it wasn’t completely an issue of saving their pennies for Tanaka, but more so that he is the only player available they deem worth their pennies.
But that’s the real question, is Tanaka really worth what it will likely cost to get him?
It’s not a secret, Theo Epstein said as much at the Winter Meetings, that the Cubs don’t have as much financial flexibility as they would like. What exactly that means is up for debate. What I can gather is that they have money for a big free agent, but going on a spending spree at this point in time isn’t an option.
(Whether these spending restrictions are legitimate, brought on by a complicated loan/purchase agreement that limits them, or whether it’s just ownership being unwilling to loosen the purse strings – or even another reason – I don’t know and, frankly, I’m not interested in debating. All we know is that, right now, the Cubs can’t spend like the Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox, while many believe that, as the big market Chicago team, they should.)
The Cubs are adamant that with both the Wrigley renovations and a – hopefully—mega-TV deal in the not too distant future, money will no longer be an issue. Yes, the renovations are at a standstill and the TV deal can’t be redone until 2019 (though the Cubs have suggested there are ways to get creative and speed up the time table on the latter issue), but let’s work under the assumption that soon enough, we won’t have to waste time debating whether the Cubs will be big players in the free agent market.
If that’s the case, then the Cubs won’t have to be worried if a big money deal for Tanaka will end up handcuffing them if they want to add another big free agent in the next couple years. This Cubs front office would never move forward on such a deal if they felt that Tanaka was going to take up 20% of their payroll for the foreseeable future. Adding such a big contract would likely mean that financial flexibility is not too far off in the future.
As Brett discussed in his Alfonso Soriano piece earlier this week, most big-money deals are handed out because the team is looking for an impact in the first few years of the deal. Most teams realize a player may not be worth the money he’s making in years six, seven and eight, but the impact provided earlier in the contract hopefully outweighs those downside seasons. As Brett pointed out, having enough depth in the farm that can provide affordable and talented players to fill out the roster in the latter years of the contract helps ease the pain. Also having the ability to outspend your ‘mistakes’ is a nice bonus.
For the Cubs, while they’ll take it, they’re not as interested in immediate impact from Tanaka. Their window possibly opens in 2015, maybe 2016, so, ideally, Tanaka will be hitting his peak in his age-26 season and it will last for a few years.
That’s where we get to the considerable second issue for the Cubs when it comes to signing Tanaka. Yes, Tanaka is 25, but how old is his arm?
I try and stay away from discussing whether a pitcher is more likely to get injured due to usage or mechanics because the fact is, we just don’t know enough about these things, especially mechanics, to make any strong conclusions. However, we have come to a general consensus in American baseball on trying to limit the abuse a pitcher takes, especially while they’re still young and their bodies and arms are developing.
More than just innings*, we’ve discovered that high pitch counts are a problem. And, while I have no major issue with pitchers racking up their pitch count here and there, it gets even more worrisome when it happens on a consistent basis and the body hasn’t had time to fully recover from those high pitch totals. As Jeff Passan recently wrote, Tanaka’s usage raises all the red flags that I’ve mentioned.
*As a quick aside: many people referenced Tom Verducci’s piece in which Verducci leaned heavily on innings pitched to point out that there are reasons to be concerned with Tanaka. While possibly valid, I didn’t feel it presented as strong a case as Passan’s piece. In it, Verducci talks about how there are only three pitchers since 1961 who have pitched more than 1315 innings through their age 24 season. I thought it was odd to conveniently confine his research to 1315 innings (exactly Tanaka’s total in the NPB), so I quickly expanded the search. Even if you change those limits to 1901 and 1200 innings, the number of pitchers jumps to only 20 and it’s quite a mixed bag of success stories and failures. It’s hardly enough of a sample size to provide any conclusive evidence as to whether Tanaka’s heavy work load at such a young is of concern or not. That’s one of many reasons I’d prefer to look at Tanaka’s pitch counts and his recovery time from those outings rather than just raw inning totals. We should know by now that all innings pitched aren’t created equal.
A bit of a lesser concern is Tanaka’s mechanics. Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus beautifully breaks down Tanaka’s mechanics here.(If you don’t have a BP subscription, Thorburn alone makes it worth it. If you’re interested in learning more about pitching mechanics, he’ll have you reading for hours. The links included within that Tanaka piece are a must-read, one of which is his explanation on how he grades pitching mechanics. Just a world of information that can teach us all so much about pitching.) Thorburn also points out some issues that he sees in Tanaka’s mechanics. They don’t appear to be a major problem, and Thorburn even suggests that a good coaching staff could alleviate some of the issues that may arise. While Chris Bosio doesn’t yet have the track record of Dave Duncan or Don Cooper, I, among others, believe he has a chance to have a real impact at what he does. While Tanaka certainly could clean up his delivery, right now, that’s not a reason I’d suggest the Cubs shouldn’t pursue him with full vigor.
And let me say this: pitching is an unnatural action. Any pitcher, no matter how well they are taken care of and developed by their organization, has a strong chance of getting injured. There’s no such thing as a sure-thing when it comes to pitchers; they’re all, as Brett and I like to say, a crapshoot. All that said, the bottom line is Tanaka’s usage has become a major concern for me. Tanaka may not break down right away, or ever, but there are certainly reasons to worry that he’s a higher risk than your average arm.
The Cubs have to weigh whether it’s worth paying Tanaka $20 million per year when they likely won’t be contending for another year or two, and thus won’t be getting as much value on their investment in that first season or two. Then they have to add in the risk factor of Tanaka possibly not being healthy (or effective – it’s hardly a guarantee that he’ll be successful in the majors) in the seasons which they actually expect to compete.
They’ve shown they’re willing to invest now in the hopes of having a player available to them when they are in the running for the playoffs (see: Edwin Jackson). But with names like Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, Homer Bailey, Justin Masterson and James Shields possibly being available next offseason (I’m not even mentioning the very remote chance that the Dodgers don’t extend Clayton Kershaw), is taking a chance on Tanaka still necessary? Of course, it’s a risk to wait another year for pitchers who may not be healthy, productive or even available at that time.
It’s safe to say that the Cubs have more information on pitcher abuse, biomechanics and Tanaka in general at their disposal than we do. And they’ve already made their decision whether he’s worth pursuing and at what cost.
I still believe it’s worth the risk for the Cubs to aggressively pursue Tanaka; this type of potentially high-end pitching talent is rarely available on the open market. But it’s certainly not the slam dunk I felt it was before we knew how drastically the new posting system would change. Paying a huge one-time fee and then a very reasonable deal (5/$60 million?) mitigates some of the risk that comes with Tanaka. However, handing out a multi-year deal that will almost certainly cost more than $20 million per season is a risk on its own. Add in Tanaka’s question marks and it becomes an even bigger gray area.
But my guess is most Cubs fans are ready for their team to start taking some of these risks. In this particular situation, I can’t say I disagree.