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Chicago clubs come up empty in Tanaka sweepstakes

Coveted Japanese righty chooses Yankees, sending Cubs back to drawing board @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Masahiro Tanaka is coming to Chicago. But hold the exclamation mark, please.

To the chagrin of the Cubs and White Sox, the 25-year-old Japanese stud will be in the visiting clubhouses at Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field. The two Chicago teams will see firsthand what they missed out on when the Yankees spend six days here in late May, playing a two-game series against the Cubs May 20-21, followed by a four-game series against the White Sox.

No one should be surprised that the Yankees won the bidding war to land Tanaka. That's what they've always done. But as late as Monday night, there were executives around Major League Baseball who thought the Cubs were going to win this sweepstakes.

While they appear at least a couple of years away from the point where Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and their other high-level young hitters will make them dangerous, the Cubs were on Tanaka early and stayed on him until the end. They viewed him as one-stop shopping in addressing an organizational pitching deficit.

As a bonus, Theo Epstein & Co. knew that signing Tanaka would quiet the seemingly inevitable questions about the Cubs' financial commitment created by an offseason in which their big move has been signing reliever Jose Veras for $4 million. But no one should think that this was driven by any desire to placate fans. That's not how Epstein does business. He convinced the Tom Ricketts ownership group that Tanaka would be part of championship teams at Wrigley Field, and because of that was willing to put together the biggest contract in franchise history to get the deal done.

Unfortunately, Epstein didn't convince Tanaka to take his money. So at the end of his third offseason in Chicago, Epstein is left with a familiar disappointment at the end of a bidding process.

The Cubs were runners-up to Oakland for Yoenis Cespedes two years ago. They lost Hyun-Jin Ryu and Yasiel Puig to the Dodgers last year, when they also saw a stealth attempt to land Anibal Sanchez lead them to Edwin Jackson.

Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer put a four-year offer on the table for Sanchez when the Tigers were saying three was their limit, but that aggressiveness served only to prompt Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski to add two years onto his offer, landing Sanchez for $80 million over five. The Cubs signed Jackson for $52 million over four years on the rebound, then watched him post a 4.98 ERA over 31 starts.

Tanaka would have changed the conversation for the Cubs. And maybe the future, too.

But now Epstein, Hoyer and their assistants will have to find a new plan of attack.

In their dreams, they hope that C.J. Edwards will race through the upper levels of their farm system to become a right-handed Chris Sale. And wouldn't it be nice if they then could sign him to a long-term deal like the one the White Sox got Sale to agree to last spring -- a commitment that runs through 2019, with an average annual value of about $8 million, even if its escalators are triggered.

"When we were starting the process with Chris, you try to skate toward where the puck's going to be, and see where this could potentially lead to over coming years," said White Sox GM Rick Hahn, who won't be as impacted by Clayton Kershaw's $215 million extension as most general managers. "… We did feel the market for players of his caliber was going to climb, and Kershaw was going to be part of that."

Hahn also got ahead of the market when he signed Cuban slugger Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million deal in October. He would have loved to have added Tanaka to a list of recent newcomers that includes Avisail Garcia and Adam Eaton, and owner Jerry Reinsdorf made available the resources that let him have a seat at the table.

Adding Tanaka would have made the White Sox the offseason champion, not the Yankees. But they could not take no for answer. It almost seemed like they were laying groundwork for a future deal -- in case Tanaka's agent, Casey Close, winds up representing Kenta Maeda (the Japanese Greg Maddux) next winter.

"It was a really nice opportunity to sit down face to face and articulate our vision for the future, and why we think we're on the precipice of something pretty special," Hahn said on Comcast SportsNet Chicago. "Why we think [Tanaka] could be a part of that, and how he would fit in. It's not too often even with domestic free agents that you get the opportunity to lay out a vision, to tell them why you could be part of this, why you are pursuing them. I really appreciated how that process unfolded."

If there's consolation for the Cubs, it's that they would have had to include an early-out clause to land Tanaka. He can hit the free-agent market again in four years, and that's exactly what Epstein would not allow Cespedes to do when he lost him to the A's.

Oakland GM Billy Beane agreed to sign Cespedes for four years, so he's now only two years away from free agency. The Cubs insisted on having him for six, which is why they lost him.

Epstein and Hoyer are all about long-term vision. But they know that sooner or later they'll need elite pitching, and Tanaka would have gone a long way toward filling that need.

It's back to the drawing board.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox