Chicago Cubs fans have become a dark group of late. And while it sometimes seems like it, their anger isn’t solely directed towards a slightly creepy, but ultimately harmless, anthropomorphic bear. What was once a vocal minority has continued to grow over the last couple months, mostly spurred by a lack of activity in a winter that follows a season in which the team dropped at least 90 games for the third straight year.
Granted, major transactions have all but come to a standstill after a flurry of moves surrounding the Winter Meetings. However, a fan base that’s suffered through so much isn’t interested in excuses. They’re looking for a glimmer of hope, and justifiably so.
Luckily for them, the reason for the recent inactivity could also be the cure for what ails both the fans and the team: Masahiro Tanaka.
With Tanaka recently being posted, the focus of numerous teams has been placed squarely on acquiring the Japanese ace, while other free agents (Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez, among a few others) are left sitting on the sidelines, wondering what their futures hold. Though most of the rumors have been focused on the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, some reports have surfaced lately, indicating the Cubs could actually end up being Tanaka’s ultimate landing spot.
Acquiring Tanaka would be a huge statement about the Cubs’ future, possibly more so off the field than on. Signing Tanaka would hardly ensure a better product in 2014, especially considering that there’s no guarantee he ends up being a dominant pitcher in the big leagues. However, knowing what Tanaka will likely cost, a lot will be learned about the Cubs’ ability to once again act like the team that spent its way to back-to-back division titles seven years ago.
It’s become clear that getting Tanaka is going to require a minimum $20 million a year commitment. Showing the willingness to allocate those types of funds would indicate that not only is ownership able* to open the coffers if the front office identifies the right big-money free agent, but also that the baseball operations side believes the payroll will be increasing significantly in the coming years, allowing them to try to sign other major free agents.
*There has been a debate for a while as to whether ownership has the money to spend and just isn’t doing so or if they are genuinely handcuffed by a complicated loan agreement. This debate only intensified with Jeff Passan’s recent piece as well as an appearance on Waddle and Silvy, in which he suggested that Ricketts wasn’t just waiting for more revenue generators to come through (the Wrigley renovation along with an expected big-money TV deal), but rather that he wouldn’t spend until the team started winning. If that’s the case, I think we all can agree it is unacceptable for numerous reasons. Passan also suggests that it’s not just an unwillingness to increase payroll, but the entirety of baseball operations is getting the short end of the stick, including many aspects that fans may not care or think about, but have legitimate effects on the team’s ability to improve. For me, I’m giving Ricketts a chance to show he’s willing to spend once the renovations are guaranteed and the TV deal is in place. If the Cubs are still acting like a small-market club come next offseason with some legitimate arms possibly on the market (in particular, Jon Lester, Justin Masterson, James Shields, Max Scherzer and Homer Bailey) then I will join those who are questioning this ownership’s willingness to spend like a major market team and do what it takes to put a quality product on the field. This likely deserves much more exploration, but for now, back to Tanaka.
Why would spending on Tanaka now be any indication of increased spending in the future? Looking at the great research done by Jared Diamond and The Wall Street Journal in this piece, we can see just how disastrous it is to a club that earmarks 20% or more of its payroll to one player. There is no way that Theo Epstein and company would allow themselves to invest so heavily in a player as unproven and risky as Tanaka without feeling confident that they could increase payroll in the very near future. The downside of that gamble would far outweigh the upside.
The chance of Tanaka not being worth his contract is too great to invest that type of money if the payroll isn’t significantly increased in short order. Putting a large percentage of your payroll in someone who has established themselves in the big leagues and is very young like Mike Trout? Sure. Tanaka? It just wouldn’t add up for a front office that’s as forward thinking as this one.
In the long run, the rumors placing the Cubs as major players for Tanaka’s services could just be setting the fans up for another major disappointment. And while it’s very unlikely fans hungry for some good news will be satiated by the mere willingness of the Cubs to take on such a large investment, it would undoubtedly be a positive sign.
But make no mistake: the ultimate goal is for the Cubs to land Tanaka, and, while doing so, announce loudly and clearly to the rest of the league that the Cubs are once again major players in the free agent market. Combine that with the minor league system this front office has built, and Epstein’s claim a few months ago that the Cubs are coming fast and coming strong may not seem as funny as it once did.
Follow Sahadev Sharma on Twitter @sahadevsharma. Or else.