Masahiro Tanaka won’t be the next Yu Darvish, but he won’t the next Kosuke Fukudome for the Chicago Cubs and their latest rebuilding effort. In fact, singing Tanaka stands a chance to be the move to roll the Cubs in the right direction after numerous failed free agency signings under the old regime.
Chicago appears to be in the thick of the race for Japanese ace, and some reports on him suggest he’ll match well with MLB hitters but not find the same success he had in Japan. Laying it all out, he looks like a bona fide No. 2 with an ace ceiling. Projecting Tanaka’s basement is difficult at this point. Kei Igawa comes to the minds of many, but some handy math suggests he could fall in behind Darvish in terms of a projected ERA (3.23 via Fan Graphs).
Scouting aside on the prized right-hander, his meaning is much more significant to Theo Epstein, Cubs vice president of baseball operations, because it would mark the landing of the biggest name free agent after being outbid by Texas for Darvish.
Think about it this way, with the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers hot on his trail, Epstein and the Cubs would have to convince Tanaka they’re going to be a winning team very soon. Otherwise, it’s difficult to see the 25-year-old pitcher wasting his best years for a last place team.
On top of that, the Cubs are seeking an exclusive TV deal the likes of which boosted the Los Angeles Angels into big spending a few years ago.
One of the real values of Tanaka — if he is to land on Chicago’s North Side — is the first real signal that someone is believing in the rebuilding plan that has sputtered to a slow start. His value is bringing in fans with the unprecedented hope that comes every season, and if the previously linked 3.23 ERA holds up it’ll be hard not to buy into him.
He’s the biggest domino the Cubs currently have. Bringing him on board entices more and more free agents. It also gives the Cubs a clearer path in June for the draft where a wealth of college pitchers should be sitting ready at No. 5 not more than a few years away from their debuts.
His signing further inks Epstein’s success forays into the international market, which began with Jorge Soler in Chicago and is now being highlighted by Xander Bogaerts in Boston.
If Tanaka comes, here’s the Cubs’ rotation for 2014:
1. Jeff Samardzija
2. Masahiro Tanaka
3. Travis Wood
4. Edwin Jackson
5. Jake Arrieta
With Jackson expected to have a rebound season and Wood coming off an All-Star appearance, Tanaka solidifies three spots with a potential for four spots locked up with young, veteran arms. Arrieta figures to grab the final spot, but the hard-throwing Justin Grimm (acquired for Matt Garza) is lurking around the corner after a good season out of the bullpen in 2013 with Chicago.
Grimm was drafted by Jason McLeod and Epstein in 2007 with Boston but opted to honor his college commitment to Georgia. There’s familiarity, a fastball around 97 mph and with a good spring he’ll be slotted into the rotation Tanaka or not.
Improvement to the rotation through Tanaka rather than an overhaul can fast track the Cubs in 2015 when top offensive prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Soler are expected for either everyday or late season part-time roles with everyday spots targeted for 2016.
If Tanaka isn’t signed, it doesn’t necessarily signal a lack of effort or a broken rebuilding plan. If he is, keep an eye on the North Side in the coming years.