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?
Theo Epstein spoke today, and like all times when Theo has something to say, it’s generated some buzz.
“A million here, a million there, that’s what we can afford. We’re not in position to throw around hundreds of millions of dollars in free agency. But if we can do it in that (international free agency) market, we might as well try to monopolize it as best we can.”
That line from Theo has started the “mid-market” talk among fans and media, alike. Patrick Mooney put out a great piece which explicitly called the Cubs just that. Then again, knowing the Cubs’ history of flushing money down the crapper and how the landscape of baseball is changing with the new labor agreement, is that such a bad thing?
At the risk of repeating myself, the way the Cubs are going about their business is the best way to do it. Free agency is not going to produce a team that goes from the bottom of the division to the top after just one winter, like the Cubs managed to do between the 2006 and 2007 seasons. There are no quick fixes. So spending “a million here, a million there” on international free agents and by acquiring a load of talent to retool from within is the last best option. Minor league talent is currency. Teams can develop and field that talent when it reaches the point major league ready (unlike the Cubs have…see Patterson, Corey; Pie, Felix) , or they can use it to acquire established players…which is the “new free agency.” Teams who are selling off veterans like the Cubs have the last couple of seasons are essentially teams of free agents who can be had if the price is right.
Drafting and development hasn’t been a strength of the Cubs in the past. Bleacher Nation had a piece yesterday that should make the former front office want to huddle in a corner and cry. You think the team we’re watching is bad? Take a look at that roster. It makes me cringe. The good news is, the article BN referenced is linked, showing all 30 teams…including the Red Sox, which was led by Theo Epstein. In a weird, mid-market sort of way, a number of the major pieces of what made the Red Sox good over the second half of his tenure were homegrown…like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholtz, and Jonathan Papelbon while players like Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez were used as currency to obtain other useful parts.
The era of big market supremacy has passed. In all reality, it never really existed. Even the Yankees in the ’90s were mostly homegrown with some complimentary free agents sprinkled in. It is time to embrace the “mid-market” philosophy of spending wisely and developing players…because it works.
Over the past day or so, the latest name to pop up in Cubs trade rumors is that of Jeff Samardzija. Yesterday, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports said the Cubs were “listening” to other teams as they call about Samardzija, which is essentially what really set off the entire conversation.
The reality about Samardzija trade speculation, as others have said, is that of course the Cubs are willing to listen to what other teams are offering. That does not mean Shark is on the block in the same manner Ryan Dempster was last season or Matt Garza was this season. That does mean that it would be irresponsible of the front office to not listen to what other teams have to offer for Jeff Samardzija, who is not a free agent until after 2015 and, although he is 28 years old, is relatively low mileage at this point in his career. He’s only thrown 481.1 major league innings, which isn’t a whole lot for someone of Jeff’s age or his physical stature.
It would be a massive surprise if Samardzija was traded for all of those reasons…the price would be astronomical. While the D-Backs, Red Sox, Pirates, Braves, and others may have interest, it is going to take an awful lot to acquire him. The price tag takes him out of reach for most teams because they simply don’t have the prospects. And he probably costs too much to part with for the teams with the prospect currency to actually get him. It is not totally out of the question that somebody gets desperate for a starter with so few good ones on the market, though, so it is worth the front office’s time to listen to whoever calls. The price is reportedly a top pitching prospect (or prospects), as it should be.
Theo and Jed aren’t stupid. They know they have a huge piece to build a competitive Cubs team with (if the price is right), either as a front of the rotation starter or a player who can fetch a front of the rotation starter in a trade. While Samardzija may not be “on the block,” he isn’t unavailable. And since none of the Cubs have a no trade clause anymore, that’s the way it should be. Everyone can be had if the price is right. For Samardzija, the price is going to be high. Really high.
Because I have been traveling, I have not had the opportunity to get in on the Matt Garza trade posts, but I have an opportunity to now, and it seems, just in time…
The madness starts with David Kaplan, via Bob Nightengale, saying that Jurickson Profar is in play…
Let me first say, Garza for Profar won’t happen because that deal would have already been made. I could see Profar being in play if the Cubs add to the deal with good prospects that are less developed. Garza, Arismendy Alcantara, Dan Vogelbach for Profar and some other lesser pieces has a VERY outside shot of happening. Maybe not that exact deal, but something along those lines.
Another report about a trade with the Rangers has the Cubs looking to acquire Neftali Feliz. Again, that would be a great move for the Cubs, in spite of Feliz recovering from Tommy John surgery. He has the stuff to be a really good starter, but if injuries were to prevent that, he is definitely the kind of guy you put on the mound in the ninth to end games. Again, I am not sure it is likely that he comes to the Cubs in any deal. Jon Heyman reports that Martin Perez isn’t going anywhere in a Garza deal, so it would seem that door is closed. It makes sense. The Rangers need pitching, so it wouldn’t be a great move to deal a young pitcher producing in the rotation right now.
The most likely acquisition for Matt Garza from the Rangers is Mike Olt, who seems to be the most realistic of the players being discussed. The big concern about Olt is that he was struggling with vision problems early this season. That problem was, apparently, an inability to make tears, causing things to be blurry. Once discovered, Olt was given special drops, and for his part, seems to be past the injury, saying “I definitely noticed a huge difference the first day I used them.” Being past his vision issues would make him a still excellent prospect, and a nice “buy low” piece.
A lot of teams, including the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Indians, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers are also being connected to Garza, among others. The most talked about, though, with actual players in return being discussed is Texas. It would be a significant upset, in my mind, if Garza went anywhere but Texas. Unless a team swoops in late with a package that wows Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer (which the Red Sox can if Clay Bucholtz doesn’t return healthy), the Rangers are the team to watch, especially if it is to be believed that Matt Garza has pitched his last inning as a Cub.
In 2011, the Cubs and Cardinals shared something in common. Both dreamed of 2012 with Albert Pujols in the line-up. Jerseys,
shirsies, and Cubs’ gear with the signature 5 on the back started appearing. And then Jim Hendry gave him a hug. And we all leaned forward. And then Hendry got fired and Theo Epstein got the job to lead the front office after spending mega-dollars in Boston. We all thought it was a sure thing that the Cubs would sign Pujols or former Brewer, Prince Fielder. And then the Cubs traded for Anthony Rizzo. And the dreaming was over.
The start of a rebuild was upon us. None of us thought it was 101 losses bad. We didn’t think we would be waiting until 2015 to be realistic contenders. That is, however, where we are. And it is exactly where we should be.
My favorite conversations are with the people who talk about “winning now.” We should buy free agents to win now while prospects develop so that we have a good major league product while we develop a minor league product. The reality, though, is that logic is flawed. Because the evidence suggests that it fails just about 100% of the time.
The New York Yankees are the poster-children for throwing money at flaws. In fact, the Yankees have spent, since 2001, roughly $2.375 BILLION on payroll. They have appeared in the World Series only three times (2001, 2003, and 2009), and have only won once (2009). They spent about $792 million per World Series appearance. Meanwhile, the Cubs have spent about $1.294 billion on payroll for three PLAYOFF appearances, and no World Series berths in the same time frame. Every year, the Cubs are in the top half (even now) in total payroll and have had among the highest in the National League over the last 13 years.
The teams who are winning are those who draft their players, develop them, bring them up, and learn to win at the MLB level. There is a reason the Rays are one of the most stable franchises in baseball now, in spite of having to let players like Matt Garza, Carl Crawford, James Shields, and likely soon will let David Price walk out the door. They do their work on the draft and turn their talent into contending quality major league teams. The Giants have done the same thing with home grown Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Buster Posey, et al winning two of the last three championships. The Cardinals refused to pay Albert Pujols more than he was worth. They set a number and a length for him, and refused to budge. He went to the Angels, and his legs stayed in St. Louis. Meanwhile, he has eight years left on his contract. He’ll be a player who can’t run, can’t be traded, and has to be paid until 2021. Sound familiar? A certain left fielder has drawn the ire of Cubs fans for failing to live up to his deal, and Pujols has an even worse contract.
Like it did with the Rays, the Phillies when they won with a core of Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins (all home grown), and the Giants, it will take time for the Cubs to roll the snowball of building talent into a top down organizational juggernaut like the current Cardinals (who have the best record in baseball and one of the best farm systems to pair with it), but it is the right direction.
In the coming free agent class, there are no game changers to make the Cubs instant contenders. That is just another flaw in a completely unsustainable plan. Robinson Cano is the only potential free agent who could make an impact on a line up, and it is highly unlikely that he leaves New York. Shin Soo Choo is a nice piece, but he isn’t pushing the Cubs into the category of making a deep October run. Jacoby Ellsbury is a good player who may finally be healthy, but he is nearing the wrong side of 30, and has an injury history that makes him a salary liability. And if/ when the Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Brett Jackson, Kris Bryant group gets to Chicago, they have an old player with a big contract blocking them. The pitching isn’t much better in the coming off-season. The most accomplished free agent pitcher to be is already on the Cubs’ roster in Matt Garza.
Losing games isn’t any fun. It’s easy to understand the frustration of watching the team lose games they could win, sink to the bottom of the division in May, and sell off veteran pieces for players who may turn into nothing. But throwing money at free agents and trading every nice piece in the farm for a chance at one year is how the Cubs got to this point in the first place. They are much better served developing their players, bringing them to the big league level, and trading prospects only when the return is a player who can be useful for sustained success. Money is best spent in the manner the front office has shown that it is going to spend it…on its own core pieces. Keeping young talent in-house for mutually beneficial deals is a very good way to spend money, and the Cubs’ position as a big market team should be able to allow them to hang on to their players, and not have to purge them when they have out-performed their contracts.
An unfortunate side effect to doing it the right way is that it takes time. And it will. Anything worth doing, though, is worth doing right. Doing it right takes time, and good things come to those who wait, and all those other things we were told when we were kids. They’re all true.
This is going to be short and sweet because Spring Training is like “Who’s Line Is It, Anyway.” The stats, scores, and results don’t actually mean anything.
This year’s version of Spring Training turned out to be more interesting than it needed to be because of the injuries and the whole 101 losses last season thing lingering around the fan base. Which is stupid. This is a different team. A better team. And last season’s 101 losses were stipulated to when anything of value was sold for parts at the end of July.
On to the recap:
- Ian Stewart tapped out of the only actual battle for camp by straining his groin. That really only pushes it back into the regular season when he returns from the DL and rehab stint. Like the front office, I remain sold on it being too early to give up on him. Not after what it cost to get him to Chicago.
- Matt Garza’s lat is a pesky bugger, and lingered around, too. I am all for the cautious approach the team is taking with him, though. However, this injury seems to put the nail in the “trade Garza” coffin. I would be somewhat surprised at anything but an extension somewhere in the same ballpark as Edwin Jackson’s contract.
- Keith Law (@keithlaw) had the following to say about Brett Jackson’s make up on Twitter this evening: “Never heard a bad word about him, going back to college/Cape.” Brett Jackson seems genuinely possessed with not being a Felix Pie reincarnate. I think we all appreciate that.
- David DeJesus won the bunt tournament.
- Jorge Soler and Javier Baez were fun to watch. They both look like they will be in the big leagues someday. Neither of them is ready…not even close. But it was fun to watch some of the power displays they put on.
Again, this is short and sweet. There isn’t a lot to say about Spring Training because nothing of real consequence happens there. Last year, Ryan Dempster got beat up a little bit in spring. He was just fine come April. The point is, every body relax. The stuff that counts is on Monday.
Theo Epstein was on WEEI Boston today, where he spoke about a number of topics. He spoke about the signing of Edwin Jackson and him having years left in his prime, Anthony Rizzo, and draft pick compensation being at a premium when considering signing free agents that would cost a draft pick, in addition to a number of other topics related to the Cubs and Red Sox. The interview is lengthy, but it’s worth a listen if you’re so inclined to do those types of things. Hear Theo Epstein’s interview with WEEI here.
Bruce Levine had a chat today, which covered a number of topics. Some of the highlights, with some of my own commentary are as follows…
- He was asked about the potential of a Soriano trade to the Phillies, and he said that was a “tremendously old rumor.” That doesn’t say good things about the potential about it actually happening, but Soriano might be a better alternative to the Phillies with the free agent market for Michael Bourn. With the Cubs willing to eat a significant portion of Soriano’s deal, he could be a cheaper alternative for a team looking to acquire an outfielder, without wanting to give up a valuable draft pick. The Cubs will look to see if they can move Fonsi, but I would be a little surprised if he were moved before Opening Day.
- When asked if Jeff Samardzija had a chance at 200 strike outs, 15 wins, and a sub 3.2 ERA and said that he had spoken to scouts who said Samardzija was the most improved pitcher last season between April and September. He also said there is no reason to think those numbers can’t be approached. I would be inclined to agree to a certain extent, but I would caution against expectation. Samardzija is a young pitcher and any growth would be a good thing from him in 2013. Since the team does not figure to contend, it would be wise not to burden a good young player with big expectations too early.
- Bruce was also asked about the leaks, to which he said that the Cubs are pretty accessible, but they don’t let information get out that they don’t want out. He also pointed out that agents are a factor in free agency. I’m inclined to agree. It seems like the Cubs have had leaks happen to them, but haven’t been the source. The Dempster leak came from the Braves, the Marmol leak from Marmol himself, and the Sanchez leak was from an agent trying to leverage a team. Really…there’s nothing that could be done there from the Cubs’ side of things.
- He outright dismissed the idea of trading for Justin Upton and Giancarlo Stanton. Amen.
- Matt Garza trade rumors to the Rangers came up for a heavy package, and he said it was possible. I agree that the Rangers could use the statement addition of Garza after missing on Greinke, and that could drive up the return value for him, but with Garza having been injured, I would be surprised if he were traded before the season. It would be a risk for any team to send the Cubs a package of prospects without seeing the guy pitch after last July. His elbow is the reason he didn’t get moved at the deadline last year, so I have a tough time seeing him getting moved before he pitches. That’s just my feeling. A desperate Rangers team (or someone else) could change that, though.
- The speculation about political bitterness between the Ricketts and Mayor Emanuel made an appearance. Honestly, get over it and do what’s best for the ball club. I know Wrigley is a historical landmark, but it is still a functioning ballpark and will need renovations, so the gamesmanship and BS need to stop. A successful Cubs team is good for the Ricketts and the city of Chicago, and a modernized Wrigley is a key to that.
- Conversation about prospects came about with Bruce saying he thought Brett Jackson was the most likely to come up to the majors this season. Javier Baez will play short where ever he is in the minors this year, and Josh Vitters and Junior Lake could see themselves moved to the outfield, or at least it is time to consider it. I think Vitters could be a good left fielder. Hide his defense, and continue to develop his bat in that spot. If Soriano is traded, I think he would be a good choice to get a crack at the position first.