The Tanaka Story, the Cubs' Actual Chances, and the Importance of Narratives

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The Tanaka Story, the Cubs’ Actual Chances, and the Importance of Narratives

Chicago Cubs

sad thoughtful catIf you aren’t interested in hashing out any of the particulars of how it came to be that the Chicago Cubs were very involved in the Masahiro Tanaka process, but didn’t actually sign him, you can stop reading here. As of today, I’m not too interested in it, myself. My pot is actually much more stirred by the rooftop news.

But, for posterity, the narrative surrounding what happened in this Tanaka process is going to start forming today, and people will want to look back on it – a month from now, a year from now, five years from now – and use it as the basis for arguments. So, while it’s fresh, it’s important to get some things down on paper.

First, and foremost: the Cubs were genuinely interested in landing Tanaka. There was no dog and pony show, and there was a serious effort made. Tanaka was a real fit for this organization, and they were willing to spend serious money to get him, even if there was reason to suspect it would be difficult to convince him to sign on.

Secondly … I’m just not sure they could ever have actually signed him. I expressed my reservations about the Cubs’ ability to land Tanaka from day one, based not on anything the Cubs could or couldn’t do, but based on a simple question: if I were Tanaka, what would I do? Coming to a foreign country, signing the primary contract of my MLB career, and having no personal ties to any particular team … I’d probably want to sign with the Yankees. They are a perennial contender playing on the biggest stage in the world. They always spend the money necessary to field a competitive team, and they have the most storied history in baseball. Hate ’em all you want, but if you were in Tanaka’s shoes, you, too, would feel the pull.

According to the New York Daily news, Tanaka did feel that pull, and truly wanted to be a Yankee.

Throw in the Yankees’ desperate need for pitching and unlimited resources, and this was always an easy call. So why were we led to believe the Cubs had a legitimate shot? Well, because, as reports indicated, they probably did “lead” – in terms of the bidding – for a stretch this past week. But as I wrote a few days ago:

It’s impossible to sort fact from fiction in anything related to Tanaka, but I think it’s interesting to consider how it all could be playing out behind the scenes if the things that we believe to be true are actually true. Imagine that the Cubs are the high bidder, primarily because they know they have to be the high bidder to have any chance of overcoming the geographical and competitive lures of Los Angeles and New York. Until you’re told that Tanaka is actually going to accept the Cubs’ deal, there is no incentive for you – the Yankees or the Dodgers – to match the Cubs’ offer. They can rely on the geography/competitive stuff to keep their offer down until the last minute when they know precisely how high they have to come to get a deal done. So, in that way, it makes sense that the Cubs would be the “leader” in the bidding, maybe right up until a deal has to be completed in a couple days. Then, the preferred team(s) swoop(s) in, ups their offer just enough, and closes on Tanaka (after his agent returns to the Cubs, explaining that they can get the money they need from a preferred team, and the only way the Cubs can get him now is if they make an obscene, reckless offer). It’s not hard to imagine things playing out this way, as unhappy as it may make you.

It gives me absolutely no pleasure to have been right, but it looks like that’s exactly what happened. The Yankees waited things out, probably got a sense that Tanaka really wanted to join the Yankees, and upped their offer just enough to get him at the last minute over the Cubs (who appear to have been the runner up). As Joel Sherman reports, the Yankees were at six years for some time now, but were told the deal wasn’t getting done without going to seven years. The New York Times reports that the Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs were indeed the final three teams for Tanaka, and Yankees GM Brian Cashman said that he was told, although the Yankees’ final offer was the highest, the others weren’t far off.

To me, that suggests that the reports of the Cubs being at seven years were accurate*, and the Yankees knew all along what they were going to need to do to get Tanaka. The Cubs pushed them to that edge, and the Yankees stepped up.

*We can play some word games with what the Cubs’ “offer” was, but what matters is how high they were willing to go. All indications this afternoon are that the Cubs were willing to get up into that 7-year, $150 million (plus posting fee) range, if it would get the deal done. Since it became apparent at some point that Tanaka wanted the Yankees and the Yankees wanted Tanaka, maybe the Cubs never actually reached that level. You could say that, therefore, the Cubs didn’t have the money to get Tanaka, but only because they couldn’t blow the Yankees’ enormous offer of the water (because of course they couldn’t (and shouldn’t)). That’s really just a matter of semantics. The Cubs were willing to make an enormous offer, but, unless they went absolutely insane with an offer, they still weren’t going to get him.

You can call that the Cubs getting Sanchez’d again – and maybe they did – but that doesn’t mean the Cubs did anything wrong here. They targeted a guy they really wanted. They saved their ammo to get him (limited ammo that, given the state of the organization, they weren’t inclined to spend on any of the free agents who’ve already signed anyway). I’ve got to believe they were led to understand they had a real shot at him. Given the fact that, at the last moment, the Yankees came up to slightly exceed the Cubs’ offer, it appears obvious that the Yankees, for one, believed Tanaka would really consider going to the Cubs.

So, what’s the “story” of the Tanaka pursuit, as we contextualize it down the road and re-tell the story of the Cubs’ progress as an organization? Is it that tanking for several seasons kills your chances of signing star players, even when you’re willing to pay? I’m not so sure I buy that in this particular context, given Tanaka’s apparently particularized desire to go to the Yankees (and or desire to be on one of the coasts). And, hell, the Mariners got Robinson Cano, after all. If you spend the money, they will come.

Is the story that the Cubs couldn’t afford the one guy they targeted? Again, I’m not so sure it is, given that it doesn’t sound like the Cubs were going to be able to sign Tanaka absent one of those instant-regret kinds of contracts. By most accounts, the money was there to commit $150+ million to Tanaka, which has to be taken as a positive signal going forward. If the Cubs don’t sign any legitimate, big money free agents next offseason? Well, then this is the part of the Tanaka narrative we can revisit and consider anew. For now, it looks like money wasn’t so much of the issue as the “fit.” Tanaka is a person, you know. He has a say in this.

So … I don’t have much of an over-arching story to sum this all up. The Cubs don’t make moves – or, well, try to make moves – in a vacuum. Other teams want these players, too, and sometimes shit just happens.

I guess I’d call this a “To Be Continued” kind of thing. The Cubs weren’t aiming, with their offseason, to build a contender in 2014. That much is clear. Not getting Tanaka doesn’t really do any harm, therefore, to the 2014 team. Not getting him, however, does a great deal of harm to the possibility of being competitive in 2015, absent a series of moves made within the next 15 months to make up for that lost value (trades for near-term impact pieces, free agent signings, etc.). In theory, the Cubs should have the money and the prospect assets (together with, hopefully, a couple prospect breakouts) to turn the corner in 2015.

I hate that 2014 is being punted, but it became the right approach a long time ago for a variety of reasons. When I think about the Cubs missing out on Tanaka at this time next year, though, I want to think about how it all worked out in the end, because the organization still lined itself up for a competitive run, starting in 2015.

Then this entire Tanaka story, and the entire narrative we build around it over the coming weeks and months, becomes little more than something talked about in passing during meaningful September Cubs game in the years to come.

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Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.