The Cubs should pass on signing Masahiro Tanaka and try to sign Ubaldo Jimenez instead.
There. I said it. I said the Cubs should pass on the hottest free agent on the market and instead go after a broken-down 30-year-old pitcher with a spotty history for less than half the price. I sound like Tom Ricketts' accountant.
But hear me out. I've been a big proponent of going after Japanese talent in the past. I thought Yu Darvish would be a star in America. That was smart. I thought Daisuke Matsuzaka would be a star in MLB. OK, that one didn't come out as well, although to be fair to me, I always thought Darvish was better than Matsuzaka.
I point this out because I also think Tanaka will be a good major league pitcher, although my track record on these things is only 50/50. But when I say he'll be a good pitcher, that's what I mean. I don't mean I think he's going to be an ace like Darvish. I've seen Tanaka pitch in the World Baseball Classic and on YouTube videos of NPB games and I've liked what I've seen, but I wasn't blown away like I was with Darvish (or in all honesty, with Matsuzaka). From what I've read, most people in the game agree with me. Some think he'll be better, but most have him pegged as a No. 2 or No. 3 pitcher in the majors.
But he's not going to get paid like one. In fact, once you add in the $20 million posting fee, Tanaka is almost certain to get a contract equal to that of Zack Greinke, if not more.
A lot of the appeal of Tanaka comes from his age. He's only 25 years old, and there's a decent chance he gets better as he approaches the "prime" years of his late 20s. But there's a big elephant in the room here and that is that Tanaka's arm already has a lot of miles on it. A ton, in fact. Tom Verducci points out in this article that the last major pitcher that had thrown as many innings as Tanaka through their age 24 season was Frank Tanana. (Wow. Just one letter off.) Now Tanana went on to have a long major league career, but only after transforming himself from the left-handed Nolan Ryan into a proto-Jamie Moyer. The next two pitchers who had thrown that many innings were Larry Dierker and Bert Blyleven. One guy who blew out his arm and was finished by the time he was 30 and one Hall of Famer, although even Blyleven missed a year with an elbow injury. The point is that the odds are good that Tanaka is going to have arm issues during his next contract. That, among other things, is what derailed Matsuzaka.
Now let's turn to Ubaldo Jimenez. Just three years ago, he was one of the rising stars in the game. A potential #1 pitcher who not only survived pitching in Coors Field, he thrived. Then he got off to bad start in 2011 and with free agency approaching, the Rockies shipped him off to Cleveland in a trade that was widely criticized at the time. But Jimenez wasn't any better in Cleveland and his struggled through 2011 and 2012. He'd lost three or four miles per hour off of his previous 96 mph. At the time he insisted he was healthy, but later admitted he was pitching through a groin strain.
When the 2013 season came around, Jimenez worked with Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway on fixing his pitching motion, straightening and shortening it. He introduced a cutter and has mostly discarded his curve ball and change in favor of his slider and split-fingered fastball. As a result, he had his best strikeout and strikeout-to-walk ratios of his career in 2013. Jimenez finished the year with a 3.30 ERA and more than a strikeout an inning. His pitches are missing about as many bats as they were in his Colorado glory days. Yes, he still only throws 92-93 mph, but guess what? That's all Tanaka throws too.
Jimenez turns 30 in January, so he's not as young as Tanaka. But he's gotten through that mid-to-late 20s period when most arm injuries seem to develop. And most of all, he's not going to cost Zack Greinke money or years. Whereas Tanaka will probably sign for at least six years and $140 million (once you add in the posting fee), Jimenez will probably cost the Cubs what they paid for Edwin Jackson last year.
The reason that Jimenez is coming so cheap, beyond the fact that he was pretty bad in 2011 and 2012, is that Cleveland made him a qualifying offer, meaning any team that signs him will have to forfeit a draft pick. As we saw with Kyle Lohse and Michael Bourn last season, this can have a chilling effect on mid-tier free agents. No one is willing to give up a first-round draft pick for anything short of a star, and that includes the Cubs.
But, as I'm sure you remember, the Cubs finished among the bottom 10 teams in baseball last season, so they'd only have to sacrifice a second-round pick. That's not nothing, but it's a whole lot less than a first round pick. We don't know what Dan Vogelbach or Rob Zastryzny are going to do yet and D.J. LeMahieu's career is still ongoing, but the last Cubs second-round pick who had a career WAR over 3.0 was Greg Maddux. That was 30 years ago.
So the market for Jimenez is artificially deflated by the compensation rules and the Cubs wouldn't be sacrificing much with a second-round pick. Most of the teams that would be interested in Jimenez will be the bad ones, so the Cubs would be at an advantage there. There is always the possibility that a team like the Yankees or Rangers would be in, as they have already sacrificed their first-round pick and would only be on the hook for an additional second or third round pick. But the Rangers don't really need another starter and if the Yankees land Tanaka, they likely aren't interested in Jimenez. So the Cubs would probably be bidding against teams like the Blue Jays, the White Sox and maybe the Phillies. The Indians would like him back if the cost was low enough. I suspect this will keep the price low. In fact, there has been something close to complete silence surrounding Jimenez and where he might land. I'm sure some teams will get interested closer after Tanaka and maybe Ervin Santana are off the market. But maybe not.
When you consider that the Cubs could get Ubaldo Jimenez, a pitcher with a known track record in MLB, for probably half the price and at least two fewer years than they would pay for Masahiro Tanaka, I think Jimenez is the smarter play. Now if I'm wrong about what the market will bear for each pitcher, then that obviously changes the equation. If you offered me either on the same contract, I'd probably take Tanaka just because he's five years younger. Probably. But signing any pitcher to a long-term contract is risky, so it makes sense to do so for as few years and dollars as possible. When you add in the extra $80 million Tanaka would likely cost, it's just not even close in my mind.