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Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Yet another loss for struggling Cubs

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Eleven years ago, Theo Epstein was just months into his tenure as the youngest general manager in baseball, but he already had the moves of a rock star.

In a bold move, the Boston Red Sox wunderkind rented out all the available rooms in a Nicaragua hotel to keep the New York Yankees away from Cuban free agent Jose Contreras.

Epstein and a colleague spent the night wooing Contreras, having drinks, smoking fat cigars and feeling great about a future together.

Then the Yankees came in and just wrote a bigger check.

That was a turning point in the Red Sox's rise from cursed team to big-money powerhouse.

Boston president Larry Lucchino made his long-lasting "Evil Empire" comment, and a rumor started that Epstein went full Axl Rose and trashed his hotel room.

The last part is apocryphal, but it adds to Epstein's baseball rock star mystique, doesn't it?

After the Contreras deal fell through, Epstein told reporters (according to The New York Times), "We're not going to beat the Yankees by throwing money around. We won't necessarily beat them on the big-name players."

That's true now, for sure.

Masahiro Tanaka
The Cubs lost out on Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, who could have helped raise excitement at Wrigley.

The Yankees beat Boston in that famous playoff series in 2003, but the next season Epstein & Co. traded for Curt Schilling and extended his deal. The Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, and Boston morphed into, well, the Yankees, albeit with a better farm system.

Here we are in 2014, and the Evil Empire beat Epstein again on a big-money international pitcher, signing Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million deal, not counting the $20 million posting fee.

The Cubs were competitive, but second place gets you nothing but more phone calls with Paul Maholm's agent and empty seats at Wrigley Field.

I don't think Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and the rest of the front office were convinced they were going to win this bidding war. These guys aren't just smart, they're realistic.

But the Cubs made their pitch and then kept in contact with agent Casey Close.

In December 2002, the Red Sox were close to their historic World Series, chasing the Yankees in prestige and firepower.

In January 2014, Epstein's situation is that he's in charge of a farm system with a middling Quadruple-A team, building and building until the young players are ready and chairman Tom Ricketts gets the Wrigley renovations in order so Epstein can create a competitive team.

For all the promise of the rekindled farm system, and it's real, exciting promise, the big league Cubs could have used Tanaka's talent and the buzz he would have created for a fan base that has seen nothing but future plans from the Ricketts family, which leads baseball in vague promises.

The fans who fork over money for tickets and merchandise get little in return. Yes, the real, hard-core fans are thrilled about the plan, but the fans writing checks for tickets aren't getting their money's worth.

That's on ownership, not the front office.

Tanaka would have been a nice carrot to keep fans coming to Wrigley.

Signing Tanaka would also have been a move aimed at the future, and that's why he was so attractive to Epstein. The Cubs have made previous pitches for international players like Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes but have been outbid every time.

The Cubs have passed on big-money free agents on the wrong side of 30.

Just 25, Tanaka was the perfect target, as he would have been in his prime as the Cubs' farmhands make their way to Chicago. Infielder Javier Baez will likely come up this year, then Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and so on and so on.

The Cubs have wisely drafted and signed budding power hitters. It was a smart decision because power is expensive. That means they just have to pay for pitching. That's why Tanaka made sense, even at an exorbitant price. It was part of the plan.

Don't get fooled by their crying-poor act; the Cubs have plenty of money. Maybe not what they feel they deserve or what they need to pay off the debts incurred to buy the team, remodel the park and build infrastructure around Wrigley, but enough to compete.

Once their remaining arbitration cases get settled, they'll have a payroll in the neighborhood of $80 million, which includes the money they're paying the Yankees to let Alfonso Soriano rake for them this season.

That's about $64 million less in pay than Ricketts doled out when he bought the team. That figure will go up as the Cubs ink a few more low-cost veterans, but it will likely stay under $100 million as the Cubs keep flexibility for the 2014-15 free-agent season.

So here we are. Pitchers and catchers report in a few weeks, and the team's biggest offseason move is Clark the Cub.

And oh yeah, the rooftop owners aren't so close on making a deal, like the Cubs led us to believe. Which means the $300 million renovation of Wrigley Field is further away than we were led to believe.

While Cubs executives praised themselves for pushing a deal with the rooftop owners to the finish line at last weekend's Cubs Convention, news came out Wednesday that the Cubs' rhetoric -- Ricketts basically called them crooks again while president Crane Kenney blamed them for the slow start to city-approved Wrigley renovations -- had helped to sour negotiations.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported the Cubs filed for the permits to erect a see-through sign in right field. It will be for Budweiser, as part of the beer company's new 10-year, $140 million deal. That sign, along with the jumbo video board in left field, are points of contention with rooftop owners who signed a 20-year deal for clear views into the park.

Nothing ever comes easy with the Ricketts' Cubs.

But the Cubs will get their beer money and their 17 percent of dwindling rooftop revenues and maybe they'll match last season's underwhelming 2.64 million attendance, their lowest in more than a decade.

They won't have to pay for a superstar pitcher and will probably deal Jeff Samardzija and a few other veterans at the trade deadline. Money will be rolled over.

Still, the future looks bright, way out there in the distance.

Keep the faith, the Cubs say, and open your wallets.

Not long after the Tanaka deal was announced, the Cubs sent out a scheduled email for ticket mini-plans. Good seats still available.