The Cubs want very much to sign Japanese righthander Masahiro Tanaka. This, Theo Epstein has made very clear, and the Cubs have to be considered one of the top contenders for his services, even coming off a 96-loss season.
What will this mean to the payroll? And, how would a rotation including Tanaka fare in the National League Central in 2014? I'm not going to consider years beyond 2014 for the purposes of this discussion, only because beyond next season, there are other variables for roster decisions that theoretically would make the Cubs a better team then anyway. I'm just interested in the 2014 impact, at this point.
Baseball-reference.com has pages estimating the payroll for every team for 2014 (and several years beyond, taking multi-year deals into consideration) Here's the Cubs' page, for your perusal. The short version is that it lists the Cubs with 10 players on multi-year deals or already signed to a one-year contract for 2014, two players not on the 40-man roster who are owed money for 2014 (Alfonso Soriano and Gerardo Concepcion), and one player on the 40-man not likely to play in the major leagues in 2014 (Jorge Soler). In addition, the page estimates arb salary awards (or agreements) for eight other players and lists 16 others as "pre-arb", 37 players in all.
The total salary obligations for those 37 players is $79.1 million, well below the $100 million that most of us think the Cubs can afford. (For comparison, the Cubs spent about $107 million on the major-league payroll in 2013.)
So let's assume that the Cubs can thus afford about $20 million per year for Tanaka. Perhaps they'd pay him a bit less in the first year to leave some flexibility, and more in future years when the obligation to Soriano, for example, is off the books.
All right, so let's assume now the Cubs have signed Tanaka; what does that mean for the team going into the 2014 season? Remember, for much of 2013, starting pitching was one of the team's strengths. This signing would only make it stronger. The 2014 rotation would therefore consist of: Tanaka, Jeff Samardzija (for the purpose of this article, let's assume he's not traded), Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson and a fifth starter. For now, let's call that guy "Jake Arrieta."
Although we do not know if Tanaka can be a true No. 1 starter in Major League Baseball, let's assume he's at least a No. 2. That would give the Cubs two No. 2 starters, a solid No. 3 in Wood, a decent No. 4 in Jackson (presuming he rebounds from his awful 2013) and a wild card in Arrieta, who could be anywhere from a No. 2 to a No. 5, if he ever harnesses his command. The No. 5 spot could also be held down by Carlos Villanueva, Kyle Hendricks, Dallas Beeler, Tsuyoshi Wada or someone who isn't even signed yet.
Assuming Tanaka is all he is expected to be, that's a pretty good rotation. A full year's worth of Tanaka would essentially replace the 15 starts made by Villanueva and the 13 made by Chris Rusin. Those 28 starts were decent -- 156⅓ innings, 149 hits allowed, 54 walks, 101 strikeouts, 4.26 ERA, 1.299 WHIP combined -- but clearly, everyone expects Tanaka to be better than that. Running those numbers through baseball-reference's Play Index to find starters comparable to those numbers in 2013, I came up with Felix Doubront, Wily Peralta, Ryan Dempster and Jerome Williams as the closest comps. All of those guys were 1 WAR or fewer in 2013. Obviously, Tanaka will be better than that.
I'd expect him to be about a 4 WAR pitcher, maybe 5 WAR if the Cubs got lucky and he brings his All-Star level of performance to MLB. Possible comp: Matt Cain in one of his better years. Or: Hiroki Kuroda, James Shields or Doug Fister, all of whom had about 4 WAR in 2013.
Remember that the Cubs underperformed their Pythagorean projection in 2013 by five games. That's a lot, and mostly of the bullpen failures. Teams that underperform by that much are likely to have better years the following year, and with the addition of Tanaka and an improved bullpen -- remember, with Tanaka you'd have Villanueva in the pen, and he was much better in relief than he was as a starter -- I could make an argument that the Cubs could play close to .500 in 2014, just by adding Tanaka.
Maybe you think I'm being overoptimistic, and maybe I am, especially considering that the Cubs haven't really done anything to improve their offense, which ranked 15th in the National League with just 602 runs scored. I'd like to point out here that the Pittsburgh Pirates scored only 27 runs more than the Cubs did in 2013, and made the postseason with 94 wins, primarily because of a huge improvement in their pitching staff. The Pirates allowed the second-fewest runs in the N.L. in 2013 (577) after giving up almost 100 more in 2012 (674). The improved pitching of the Bucs did that, led by a revived Francisco Liriano and rookie Gerrit Cole, and a solid bullpen anchored by Jason Grilli, and then Mark Melancon when Grilli got hurt.
Why can't the Cubs make significant steps forward by adding Tanaka and solidifying the pen (the latter, they've already done by adding Wesley Wright and Jose Veras)? I'm not suggesting a 94-win season, but a better rotation and an improved bullpen could certainly get the Cubs to around .500, even if expected offensive improvements by Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro and maybe Welington Castillo don't occur.
I've been on the "sign Tanaka" bandwagon for a while. Obviously, the Cubs don't have the "you can win right now" possibility that some other teams might be able to offer him. But with talents like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant on the verge of major-league play, maybe they can offer Tanaka the possibility of sustained success beyond 2014.
Go for it, Theo.
I'm sure you have thoughts about all this. Have at it.