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SportsMonday: The Tanaka Tease

The Cubs, and particularly chairman Tom Ricketts, don't want to sign Masahiro Tanaka. But they realize they can't afford to let the White Sox have him.

The bottom line is it would be a huge upset if either Chicago team signed the top remaining free agent starting pitcher. Other teams bidding for the player who went a ridiculous 24-0 for the Japanese League champ Rakuten Eagles last season reportedly include the Dodgers and Yankees. And those teams have of course displayed far more willingness to spend huge on free agents than Ricketts' Cubs, or the White Sox for that matter.

Those teams also represent a far better chance for Tanaka to quickly play for a contending team than do the Cubs. After a deadline of late last week for teams to make an offer to the Japanese pitcher, a deadline the Cubs and White Sox both met, there is a deadline late this week for Tanaka to choose a contract.

Ricketts has already established this off-season that his first priority is profits and only profits. The Cubs have done virtually nothing to upgrade their major league roster in the last few months despite losing almost 200 games the last two seasons. And one starting pitcher, no matter how good, won't make a big difference. But they know that fans are watching carefully and they are keenly aware of the moves made on the other side of town.

For their part, the South Siders have made a series of savvy transactions that filled holes with exciting young players such as Adam Eaton, Matt Davidson and Jose Abreu. And the White Sox made the big moves at the end of last season to add potential outfield star Avisail Garcia and speedy utility man Leury Garcia (no relation).

No matter how much they talk about "the plan" to pile up prospects and eventually contend in, I guess, 2017, the Cubs brass has to be feeling the heat. The White Sox' new young players all have at least a little major-league experience. They won't all make it but they all have legitimate chances. The Cubs might manage to get a prospect or two to the majors this year, but it is a stretch. The team talks about giving all of their prospects endless time to develop, seemingly oblivious to the fact that stars usually make it to the majors in a hurry.

But back to profits: The Cubs slashed their payroll about as low as they could possibly go in 2013 by trading the last of the big-money free agents of the previous regime. The last man out was Alfonso Soriano. Actually Soriano isn't quite all the way out - the Cubs still owe him $14 million in this the final year of the eight-year deal he signed with Jim Hendry and the Cubs way back when. The Cubs agreed to cover most of his remaining salary when they traded him to the Yankees.

While attendance was down to about 2.6 million last year, payroll going forward is down considerably further. The best current estimate is that the Cubs 2014 payroll is more than $30 million below the league average. In other words, even if the Cubs sign Tanaka to a contract worth something like the $20 million a year that is reportedly a possibility, they are still way below even the league average, let alone what a team whose revenues were in the top five in the league a few years ago should be.

The company line is that the team can't afford to increase payroll because the owners are so highly leveraged and they have to get more revenue streams going. The problem is, they are highly leveraged because they chose to be. The Ricketts' could have put more money into the enterprise when they purchased it five years ago. They decided against it.

In classic Cubs circularity, it is this state of affairs that may keep Tanaka from the Cubs, which just goes to show how dumb "the plan" really is.

Meanwhile, another Cub convention came and went last weekend. There are apparently still thousands of Cubs fans willing to wait and wait some more for a contending team. One guy who clearly is not willing to wait is the Cubs only returning major league asset with significant value: Jeff Samardzija.

The Cubs have tried to pressure their best starting pitcher into signing a long-term extension on their terms. Samardzija has resisted and it is clear that a part of the reason why, which he made clear in remarks at the convention, is he wants to see what the team will do to contend soon - not just theoretically in 2017.

Samardzija is taking a hard look at whether the Cubs are actually doing everything in their power to bring in Tanaka. Cubs fans should obviously do the same.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.

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