COMMENTARY | Over the past few days, it seemed like all of baseball had been afflicted by a strange illness.
That was particularly true of Chicago Cubs fans, nearly all of whom were waiting on a decision from a certain Japanese pitcher for one reason or another.
Millions of people had contracted Tanaka fever, but the cure was a bit more complicated than just prescribing more cowbell. Well, actually, it wasn't that complicated at all. After days of rumors, reports, and innuendo, Masahiro Tanaka decided to take his talents to South Bronx, by signing a 7-year, $155 million deal with the New York Yankees.
Ah, but what would a Cubs story be without a healthy dose of crippling disappointment? Of course, not everyone views it that way. By swinging and missing (hey, something the Cubs are good at!), the team is now forced to continue to lean almost entirely on its young nucleus of farmhands.
Since Tanaka would have occupied a spot in the Cubs' rotation, the attention immediately turns to the starting five, a unit that was not as abysmal as the team's record indicated last year. So let's take a look into the Magic 8 Ball to see which pitchers will be taking the bump on the North Side:
Jeff Samardzija - It is certain
Despite several rumors of his own this offseason, the Cubs have not yet dumped the Shark. 2014 will be Samardzija's seventh season on the North Side, but only his third as a full-time starter. His age, 29, belies his experience, since the Notre Dame product didn't focus solely on baseball until after a record-setting college football career.
Though maddeningly inconsistent, Samardzija's got the kind of power arm that teams covet. And if another team is willing to part with enough young talent, he is not long for Chicago. Losing out on Tanaka actually makes trading Shark more likely, as the Cubs continue with the full ground-up rebuild.
Travis Wood - Without a doubt
When the Cubs acquired Wood in exchange for lefty setup man Sean Marshall, the move was viewed as little more than a salary dump in exchange for a player under club control for longer. But after a sputtering 2012 campaign, Wood became the bona-fide ace of the staff last year.
And while being called the Cubs' ace isn't necessarily high praise, Travis' performance in 2013 more than lived up to the precedent set by his surname (that's right: Kerry's last name is also Wood, not Woods). He posted career highs in innings and strikeouts, while allowing fewer runs and home runs than he did over 44 fewer innings last year. Wood isn't eligible for free agency until 2017, so look for him to stick around.
Edwin Jackson - Signs point to yes (frowny face emoticon)
Pop quiz: Who's the highest-paid player on the Cubs' roster? Here's a hint: He earned $5 million more than the two aforementioned hurlers combined last year. If you answered "Edwin Jackson," you win, which is ironic in that he's done so little of that himself. If you answered correctly without throwing up in your mouth a little bit, I admire your self control.
Edwin Jackson came to Chicago on a 4-year, $52 million pact that made Theo Epstein look like a drowning man grasping at a life preserver. Only this life preserver was made of cement. Despite managing to look bad on a bad team, E-Jax keeps his spot because he's a known commodity and because he's too pricey to move.
Jake Arrieta - Signs point to yes
While many of Theo Epstein's trades have stocked the minor league system, he got some immediate returns when shipped Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Arrieta and Pedro Strop. Both came on strong and all indications at the end of the season were that a spot in the rotation was Arrieta's to lose. With a decent showing during spring training, expect to see him in the 4th spot, if not 3rd.
Carlos Villanueva - Reply hazy, try again
Ah, Charlie Newhouse, the odd man out last year. Is he a mediocre starter or a pretty good long reliever? He's not great, he's not terrible. Villanueva's destiny will be determined during spring training, where, if no one else emerges, he may earn the 5th spot.
Kyle Hendricks - Cannot predict now
In his first full year in the Cubs' system, Hendricks looked good across the AA and AAA levels, compiling a 13-4 record with a 2.00 ERA in 27 starts. He's got the body (6-3, 190 pounds) and experience from both college (Dartmouth) and the minors to quickly make the move to the Bigs. If he continues on his current pace, Hendricks will make people forget the awkward trade of Ryan Dempster that brought him to the Cubs.
Pierce Johnson, C.J. Edwards - Outlook not so good
Not enough experience yet for either, and Edwards really needs to work on his build (6-2, 155). After another year of seasoning, these two could very well ready for prime time.
A Free Agent to be Named Later - Don't count on it
Epstein's desperate move to sign Jackson has been discussed -- and cussed -- ad infinitum, and no one knows that more than the boy genius himself (though he's not really a boy anymore, is he?). But don't look for the Cubs to act like jilted lovers and jump into bed with the next available pitcher who doesn't shake off their sign.
They saved money on Tanaka, and that's going to go into future payroll, not Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, or Ervin Santana. Even Bronson Arroyo is a stretch (with a high leg kick, no less). Now, Paul Maholm? That might be an option. If the Cubs do pick up a free agent, it'll likely be yet another player who's willing to take a short deal, knowing that a good first-half performance will earn him a one-way ticket out of Chicago to a city that houses a contender.
So we won't be seeing #18 in royal blue pinstripes, or in any of the 10 different throwback uniforms the Cubs will be wearing this year for that matter. Nor will we be forced to use Google Translate to find out that Tanaka can't settle on a Twitter avatar. But we will get the chance to see whether he's as good a pitcher as he is an internet troll.
And the Cubs will get the chance to round out their rotation at a much lower cost. But it may take all of spring training, and there may be some new names before "Do is decide."
Evan Altman is a freelance sportswriter with a wealth of trivial pop culture knowledge. He is a self-loathing Chicago Cubs apologist whose love for the team was cultivated by watching or listening to games on WGN every summer afternoon as a child.
Nothing better to do? You can follow Evan on Twitter: @DEvanAltman.
- Sports & Recreation
- Chicago Cubs
- Masahiro Tanaka
- Jeff Samardzija
- Edwin Jackson