Earlier in the offseason, I wrote something about the Mariners being sleeping giants of the offseason, mentioning Robinson Cano. By mentioning that, I am not just tooting my own horn, I am playing "Baker Street" on it.
It wasn't exactly that hard to see the Mariners' sudden offseason nonsense coming, though. They didn't have payroll obligations, yet they were a team that had supported higher payrolls in the past. They didn't have to do anything, but it made sense that they would. And they did. Good gravy, how they did.
This comes up again because the Cubs aren't spending. Rob wrote about it recently. There really isn't a great reason for the Cubs to spend just to spend; they aren't a player away from contention. But there is a PR component to being thrifty, so if there were some sort of magical, youngish, premium free agent who would fit in with the Cubs' long-term plans -- the kind of player who could create a substantial buzz, say -- you would think the Cubs would be interested.
The player exists. His name is Masahiro Tanaka. And the Cubs are interested.
I've been fond of/obsessed with noting that Tanaka is clearly going to the Dodgers. But if there's a team that could mess things up for them, it would be a team currently with a tiny payroll. No one's going to out-rich the Dodgers, but the Dodgers spending $25 million on Tanaka sets them up for paying $35 million for David Price, which sets them up for paying $45 million for Jose Fernandez or something in the future. I'm not sure if the Dodgers have limits, but they probably have a strong desire to avoid grossly overpaying someone. They've never been outbid, but I don't think they've signed a truly crazy, because-we-can contract yet.
So let's explore the reasons the Cubs shouldn't sign Tanaka. Here are the common reasons fans and pundits suggest a team should avoid a big-ticket free agent. Let's check if any of them apply to the Cubs.
He's too expensive
When people say a player is "too expensive," that's code for "this player will affect the payroll significantly, preventing his team from acquiring complementary pieces." Because, really, you don't care what the Cubs' payroll is. It's not like by them spending on Tanaka, you're somehow going to have fewer shekels for movie tickets or gumballs. It's not your money.
What would Tanaka prevent them from getting, then? Here's their future payroll commitments. They have Starlin Castro locked up, for better or for worse, though they could shed that contract in .4 seconds if they really wanted to. They don't. There's Anthony Rizzo locked up for smart money and another couple years of Edwin Jackson.
That's it. More importantly, there isn't a big decision coming soon. There isn't a player of note approaching his arbitration years, someone the Cubs need to lock up before he reaches free agency. They have Rizzo and Castro secured. The nice part about a mostly untalented team is that you don't have to worry about how to keep the talent around.
Edit: I forgot about Jeff Samardzija. Dang it. He still needs to be locked up. The larger point still stands.
The talent is coming, though. Check out the pipeline of talent the Cubs are working on. If and when those players start producing for the Cubs, they'll do so cheaply. If, say, Kris Bryant bursts onto the scene this year, he probably wouldn't be a free agent until the end of (or after) a potential Tanaka deal.
The money allocated to Tanaka would affect only their ability to get complementary pieces or other stars over the next few years, then. If the Cubs are seriously contending in the next five years, they'll find money for complementary pieces. So if the argument is that Tanaka is too expensive, it's an argument that suggests the Cubs should spend their money on a different star player in a different free-agent market. That assumes a free agent as attractive as Tanaka will come along. That's a big assumption.
He'll block someone
Never use this argument for starting pitchers. There are five spots in a rotation. There will always be a need. Tanaka would improve the rotation of 30 teams, and that will probably be true in five years, too.
The Cubs aren't good now, so his best years will be wasted
Get the good players first. Worry about not having enough good players second. Then get more good players. Some folks were a little confused about the mini-spending spree of the Red Sox last offseason. They showed that last-place teams can use good players, too.
I can't come up with a good reason for the Cubs not to sign Tanaka. I've tried. He would make the team better, he would get the fans excited and he doesn't futz up any long-term plans.
That doesn't mean the Cubs can/will/should get in a financial tinkling match with the Dodgers and/or Yankees. But like the Mariners and Robinson Cano, don't be surprised if the low-payroll team with the high-payroll profile sneaks up and makes the big news. They might make more sense than any of the other suitors.