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Tanaka bid looms large over Cubs

January 18, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) — The most anticipated player at the Chicago Cubs’ fan convention this weekend probably isn’t on the roster or in the farm system. A case could be made that he’s in Japan.

While pitcher Masahiro Tanaka weighs his options, the Cubs and other teams in on the bidding keep their fingers crossed. Landing the Japanese star would be a big step for a struggling franchise.

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein called him “a valuable commodity” but had little else to say about Tanaka on Friday. He says he will “respect the request for confidentiality that’s come from the agent and the player.”

Adding Tanaka would be a sign that the Cubs are at least trying to nudge their rebuilding process into a higher gear. They haven’t finished with a winning record since they won 83 games under Lou Piniella in 2009, and as Epstein enters his third season in charge, fans’ patience is starting to wear thin.

“We’re doing what we believe is right to win this organization the World Series,” chairman Tom Ricketts said.

For now, the Cubs are selling promise, whether it’s highly touted prospects such as Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant or potential new revenue streams stemming from the renovation of Wrigley Field or a possible new TV deal. It’s money that Epstein said would be poured into the team.

“As the Chicago Cubs and with the great plans that our business side has laid out and started to execute, we feel like we should certainly be, eventually, at the table with the other heavy hitters in the game executing on all fronts,” Epstein said.

Has he been given the financial resources he anticipated?

“There can’t be any hard and set expectations,” Epstein said. “It’s a dynamic landscape that constantly changes. We were all hopeful of getting some public money for the ballpark, as an example, and it turned out we’re going to do that on our own. Those are just audibles, things that happened along the way that you have to adjust for. I certainly think we have a lot of togetherness. There’s a lot of synergy between the baseball and business sides as we sort of weave our way through this ever-changing landscape.”

Baseball-wise, it’s been a quiet offseason other than a change on the bench. The Cubs fired manager Dale Sveum and replaced him with Rick Renteria, but they haven’t made any eye-opening roster moves.

Signing Tanaka would change that a bit.

The 25-year-old right-hander was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last year for the Japan Series champion Rakuten Golden Eagles, who made him available under the new posting system. Teams have a Jan. 24 deadline to sign him.

“If I was sitting there a fan of the Chicago Cubs, I would have hoped for more this winter,” Epstein said. “I’m not going to hide the ball. I would have hoped for bigger names and bigger investments and more change. But I would also feel great about the direction of the franchise and where we’re heading and how talented a group of young players we’ve assembled. I’d really be looking toward the future.”

The recent past has been nothing short of painful at the major league level. For all the infrastructure improvements, the fact remains that the Cubs have lost 288 games the past three years.

Epstein didn’t promise a quick fix when he took over, and he insisted he’s not veering from his course now.

Epstein acknowledged it could be a few more years before the Cubs are ready to contend, assuming their prospects develop the way they anticipate.

“I think the one thing we were smart about was never putting a timetable on it,” Epstein said, laughing. All along I’ve said if you follow the progress of some of the best players in the organization, whether it’s the young big leaguers we have and whether they’re going to be entering their prime or our best prospects and when they’re going to come up here and have time to adjust and find their way. I think the core of our club will consist of those players, if you follow their development, their progress, their ages.”

For now, the Cubs wait.

They wait for their minor leaguers to develop. They wait for renovations at Wrigley and the potential revenue streams that will open.

More immediately, they await word from Tanaka. And they hope to see improvement, whether they land him or not.

“We know we haven’t had the seasons we’ve wanted to the last couple of years, but I feel like we’re going to take that to heart,” pitcher Travis Wood said.

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