Cubs Playing Poker with Tanaka Pursuit?


After beginning the first half of the hot stove league with Dwight Howard like indecision regarding whether or not to be posted, the pursuit of Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka is kicking into high gear as we near the second half of January. With the new agreement between Major League Baseball and Japanese teams maxing out the posting fee at $20 million, the bidding wars of years past over Japanese pro players now switches to a contract salary competition.

As Jacob mentioned the other day, word is that the Cubs front office is willing to go to nine figures on their offer to Tanaka. To put that into perspective, we are talking C.C. Sabathia to the Yankees money; Justin Verlander extended to at least 2019 with the Tigers cash; Felix Hernandez remaining King of Seattle for several more years dollars; the amount of money that has people all across the United States buying Mega Millions and Powerball tickets. Get the picture?

Oct 18, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher

Clayton Kershaw

reacts during the third inning against the St. Louis Cardinals in game six of the National League Championship Series baseball game at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

All that chip shuffling for a right handed starting pitcher that has yet to toss even one pitch at the Major League level. It appears that what may end up being a known quantity is that when all is said and done, the Rangers’ signing of fellow Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish will look like cents on the dollar. Don’t get me wrong. Like Darvish did prior to his jump to America, Tanaka certainly has proven to be the best Japan has to offer. Going 24-0 in 2013 is no small feat, even if the Japanese pro league overall compares to an AAAA level of baseball. How many minor league pitchers here in the U.S. can you name that has accomplished such a win loss total over a full season’s worth of starts?

While Hideo Nomo and currently Darvish may represent examples of successful transitions to MLB, ask the Yankees how Hideki Irabu worked out for them. Even Nomo and more recently Daisuke Matsuzaka turned out to be flashes in the pan, with both struggling to maintain consistent levels of ace like production past two years into their Major League careers. That leaves some question as to how Tanaka will adjust to the level of competition in MLB. The right handed starter would come in as a wild card, a joker if you will.

So do the Cubs gamble nine figures on an unproven commodity? Jacob also commented that he would rather consider 2015 free agent Clayton Kershaw. The current Dodgers ace already has six years of MLB experience under his belt at just age 25 (same age as Tanaka). A 21-5 record in 2011 certainly is not perfection when compared to 24-0, but it darn well as may be when your league boasts the top talent in the world. Kershaw has also shown to be sturdy, going 30 plus starts and well over 200 innings each of his last five seasons. While long term, big money contracts will always be one of the biggest risks in the game (see Carlos Zambrano and Mike Hampton), pursuing Kershaw would be the safer bet over Tanaka.

The only issue is that the Cubs would need to rely on Kershaw hitting the open market next winter. As of right now, the Dodgers have yet to extend Kershaw the way the Cubs have not secured Jeff Samardzija long term. With the Dodgers lefty entering the final year under team control, there has to be some strong desire to see what his own value would be on the open market.

All of the above starts to make the case for the Cubs to gas up the bidding price on Tanaka. There is talk that the Dodgers will not be outbid on the Japanese righty’s services. If Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer can bump up the dollar figure to obtain Tanaka here in 2014, they could put a dent in Los Angeles’ plans to bring back Kershaw in 2015. Can the Cubs interest in Tanaka be a bluff? After all, Epstein and Company are no strangers to mucking up the free agent and trade markets from their days in Boston while competing with the rival Yankees.

Even if the Cubs gamble backfires and they miss out on both Tanaka and Kershaw as a result, the 2015 free agent starting pitching class is also led by Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, shoulder neither of that pair of aces not sign an extension with their respective teams.

The Cubs have barely caused a ripple in the free agent pool this off season and Epstein could play off feigned interest in Tanaka with a proven pair of aces in mind for the next free agency hand dealt. Assuming that Kershaw and Scherzer test the waters next winter, the better investment would be in one of those two. Or why not dare to dream big and reel in both? Many a poker player would consider going all in with pocket rockets.

Here is hoping the Cubs are just bluffing and that the teams going all in on Tanaka are the Dodgers or the Yankees.