With the Christmas Day news that Masahiro Tanaka will indeed be posted by his team in Japan, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, we’ve all started fawning (more than before we knew for sure he was coming) over a guy who could become one of the pieces the Cubs can use to get to the next level in the rebuild. In fact, Theo Epstein was talking about just this kind of player when he said that he wishes there was free agency for 25 year olds. There is something we should all consider when we start talking about Tanaka, though, and it is that he is going to cost a lot of money. And he’s Japanese.
Being Japanese matters. In Japan, running up high pitch counts is a badge of honor. Unlike in the United States, where arms are nurtured and cared for, they are worn out and used up until exhaustion over there. And unlike the US, where athletes merely hide injuries, but eventually relent and tell someone they have an injury, pitchers in Japan work until it is no longer physically possible. All of those things matter. His potential for being injured is higher because his arm wasn’t cared for like that of a college pitcher in the US. That’s not to say he will get hurt, but it happens to pitchers more so than it does to just about any other athlete imaginable. His previous environment only heightens that risk. It’s the extent of the heightening risk that is unknown.
None of this is to say that he will bust. There is no way to know for sure that Tanaka will get hurt, and even with advanced imaging and scans on his elbow, there’s no way to know for sure that he will get hurt or won’t get hurt. I am quite positive that he will be X-Ray’d, MRI’d, CT’d, poked, prodded, and tickled like an Elmo doll before any team actually signs him between now and the end of January.
Injury risk has to be part of the equation. Theo was burned with the Daisuke Matsuzaka signing when he was with Boston, though. I am sure he remembers. And I am sure there will be a calculated gamble when it comes to signing Tanaka, whoever lands him. His age helps. Being young means his soft tissue is a little more elastic than it would be if he were in his late 20s or early 30s, as most of the other Japanese pitchers were when they came to the US.
EDIT: To clarify, I used fatigue interchangeably with overexertion, which I should not have. Having an exertion that is normal with a normal recovery period can make muscle stronger while relieving stress on tendons and ligaments. That is consistent with the way every team “stretches out” their starting pitchers during Spring Training. Overexertion is working until the point of physical exhaustion. Remarkable weakness to the point of significantly reduced velocity is an overexertion, and doing it as repeatedly as Tanaka has can (but not necessarily will) increase the risk of injury. There is no guarantee that he will get hurt, but since he has been exerting himself at this level for so long, and is just now reaching his physical “prime,” there is some risk to signing him. Whether that risk is the same as signing a pitcher who is older, like a Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez or if it is similar to signing Mark Prior just before he was injured can’t be known. The key confounding variable to all of this is: Everyone is different.
What is unsaid about Tanaka is that he does pose an injury risk that is likely greater than an American pitcher at 25 because of the strain that Japanese baseball puts on its pitchers. The recency bias tells us that Yu Darvish looks sensational and like he was worth every penny the Rangers paid for him. That bias excludes the fact that there have been a lot of Japanese pitchers who have come to the United States as highly touted players who have just flamed out because of injuries or because the competition here is greater than it is over there.
Jeff Sullivan wrote about Tanaka at Fangraphs, in which he said that Tanaka is the market’s best starter, which is true, and that international free agents “represent limitless possibilities, and people naturally shift their attention toward the positive extreme.” That is also true. Sullivan dives deeper into the scouting report of Tanaka, which is tremendous, and his numbers back the limitless talent. But like any player, especially pitcher, Tanaka has an injury risk that cannot be ignored. It will not be by the front office, and it shouldn’t be by fans. After all, we’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?
Right, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior?
Now that the World Series is over and the Cardinals lost (HOORAY!), we can get to the task at hand. The off-season. The Cubs are chocked full of needs this winter. Those will have to be addressed going into 2014 to keep the rebuilding plan on schedule.
These are the most pressing…
1. Find a new manager
After the firing of Dale Sveum, the next guy to lead the Cubs on-field is the first concern. With the playoffs having ended, the obstacle of candidates still playing is over. To be honest, I don’t care who they hire, as long as he fits the mold of what the front office is looking for. That Dale was the guy for a while, then suddenly became not the guy doesn’t matter. Great organizations are stable. And since 2010, this will be the fourth manager. That’s not stable. Find the guy. The right guy. So we’re not going through this mess again in two years.
2. Find some outfield depth
After losing Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, and Scott Hairston to midseason trades, it is going to be important for the Cubs to replace that lost depth at the major league level. The preference would be to sign veterans on short (1-2 years) deals while the youngsters get ready. With Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney, and Junior Lake, there is a need for two more outfielders. Preferably one who can play center and one who hits right handed. To be clear, I do not see Shin Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury as viable options. I have no visions of the Cubs spending on either of those players with the talent that is coming behind them. I do see players like Curtis Granderson, Grady Sizemore, Corey Hart, and Tyler Colvin as options. Colvin is the standard “buy low flier” that this front office has taken in the past, and with his talent and familiarity with the Cubs, and the admission that the Stewart – Colvin trade may have been a mistake, he could be back. The others are veterans who have had some success, but have also had injury issues. Any resurgence could make them trade bait in July, and they all likely come relatively cheap. David DeJesus is also an option if the Rays decide not to pick up his option for next season
3. Trade Darwin Barney
The popular defensive wizard is not part of the core. He’s a below average hitter. And he’s getting a bit older. There is a market for him, though. His value, however, is at its highest point right now. He’s just now entering arbitration. Teams who have a need at second base can use him. The Cubs do not have that need. They are stocked full of middle infielders, from Starlin Castro to Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, Logan Watkins, and Luis Valbuena, the Cubs have no shortage of middle infield options. All of whom are younger than Barney. And all of whom possess greater offensive upside and the potential to continue good defense at second base in the future. The return for Barney won’t be ground breaking, but it should be a decent prospect, or maybe two if Epstein and Hoyer break out the mask and gun. Now, though, is the best and most logical time to move him.
4. Address the rotation
The rotation was surprisingly good last season, throughout the year. There was a lot of depth that withstood trades, and some players emerged as legitimate long term options. Travis Wood showed that he is a solid mid to back of the rotation starter. Jake Arrieta showed that he is still talented and should get a shot going forward. Edwin Jackson had a rough first year, but with his contract and history, he will be back in the rotation next season, and I would venture to guess he has a better second year with the Cubs. It is the very top of the rotation and the very bottom that should be addressed. Jeff Samardzija walked more, stuck out fewer, and allowed more runners to score in 2013 than 2012. The differences aren’t startling, but they exist. Could it have been fatigue from the most innings in a season he’s thrown? Frustration from another near 100 losses? Displeasure over his contract situation? A combination of all three? I don’t have the answer. What I do have the answer to is Samardzija getting rocked a number of times. And it happening a number of times at home. That’s not an ace. That’s a third in the rotation type pitcher, at best. I am not sold on Japanese stud Masahiro Tanaka being an answer at the top of the rotation, either. Too many Japanese pitchers have flamed out because of arm issues. I understand his stuff is excellent, and he’s still young. That may make him a nice investment, but not for the $100+ million it’s going to cost. If the Cubs get him, I’ll hope for the best, but I won’t be at all surprised with the worst. As far as the back end of the rotation is concerned, bringing back Scott Baker, giving Chris Rusin a shot at a full season, and low cost free agents are all options.
5. Back-up catcher
I have a tough time with the idea of signing a Brian McCann (because of age and injury every bit as much as his high douche factor). All things being equal, I would hope the starting catcher market doesn’t treat Dioner Navarro as he would like, and he comes back. He had a nice year, seemed to have a good relationship with Wellington Castillo, and is a reliable backstop. Whoever comes in should take a back seat to Castillo, though. Big money free agent catchers shouldn’t (and probably won’t) be a priority. If the Cubs can land a guy like Jarrod Saltalamacchia for a decent price, great. if not, a LH hitting backup will work just fine.
One of the great parts about baseball is how this is going to play out throughout the off-season. The Cubs are not going to compete for a World Series next season, most likely. It could, though, bring the first wave of prospects to Wrigley Field. Javier Baez and Kris Bryant very well could debut with the big league club at some point next summer. In addition, could be up after being acquired in trades. It appears that the worst is behind the Cubs in the rebuild. Much of the “acquire talent at all costs” is over because of the amount of talent in the organization. The time now is for the build up. While the Cubs will continue to add pieces and make the team better and organization healthier, this off-season is the beginning of the build up of a contender. Whether it be adding placeholders for a prospect, adding leadership to help those prospects grow, or the eventual hiring of a new manager, the fruits of two years of painful big league play are beginning to ripen.
Look no further than what’s been going on in Arizona. Let the off-season begin!