The Cubs' primary free agent target of the offseason is now off the table. Masahiro Tanaka agreed to terms with the Yankees today on a 7 year/ $155 million deal. Ken Rosenthal broke the news this morning, following up with the tidbit that the Cubs were indeed among the finalists. Phil Rogers hears the same, that the Cubs were in the neighborhood. I tend to agree with Myles, who speculated that the Cubs were initially the high bidder, forcing teams who Tanaka actually wanted to play for to up their offers.
It's hard to lay too much blame on the front office. Offering up significantly more than $175 million for a pitcher who has yet to throw a pitch in the majors doesn't seem like the safest bet. On the other hand, I think there are a few takeaways that are less than comforting from the Cubs' perspective.
1) Everyone in the world realizes how badly the Cubs suck.
There have been rumblings for the past few weeks that Tanaka had no particular desire to play for the Cubs. Given the current state of the roster, it's hard to blame him. After all, one would think that part of his decision to come to the Majors was to surround himself with the best talent in the world. The only way he would have heard of half the players on the current Cubs is if Rakuten's scouting department had worked up a list of players who may decide to head over to Japan in the next few years.
2) The Cubs are not capable of doing whatever it takes.
Since the beginning of the offseason we've heard rumblings that the Cubs "wouldn't be outbid" and would do whatever it took to land Tanaka. To those of us who have long hoped that the Epstein front office would eventually wield a financial sledgehammer, this was good news. If it wasn't before, I think it has become clear now that the hammer doesn't exist. We all know that the Cubs are behind the curve when it comes to local television deals, and the implications of that tardiness are stronger than ever. The full slate of Cub games isn't available for broadcast elsewhere until after the 2019 season. At that point, who knows what the market for broadcast rights will look like? I have serious doubts about whether the team will ever be in the same league financially as the Dodgers and Yankees. And it's not just those behemoths that the club is competing with. Take a look at the rumored finalists for Tanaka:
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 22, 2014
While the Astros have recently signed a TV deal, that deal has produced substantially lower revenues for the club than anticipated. CSN-Houston has been unable to land carriage from any provider aside from it's partial owners (Comcast) and owner Jim Crane is suing. The entire debacle is the current posterchild for analysts predicting the coming implosion of the sports-rights bubble. The White Sox, on the other hand are in a similar situation to the Cubs, lacking the kind of big money deal that other clubs benefit from. So what's going on here?
It seems to me that there are enough like-minded front offices in the league now that the pursuit of any big name free agent by the Cubs is going to be problematic. Even if the Dodgers and Yankees happen to be out on a player, there are enough smaller market teams who see exactly what the Cubs see, and will be willing to divert a larger portion of their revenues towards that player. The fact that younger free agents are better values isn't exactly a closely-guarded secret. Pretty much everyone gets that, and now there are plenty of front offices willing to make large bets in that direction.
If this offseason has taught us anything, it's that baseball's financial status can change rapidly, so I wouldn't rule anything out. However, after the Ricketts purchased the team, I had hoped that they would become the Red Sox of the National League: a second-tier power capable of flexing its financial muscles when necessary, and significantly outspending 26-28 other clubs. Now I can't see that happening for the foreseeable future.