By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Perception can be a funny thing.
Last week, for example, after a Twitter storm about free agent pitcher Anibal Sanchez’s supposed imminent signing with the Cubs failed to blow anything but rumors into the Windy City, Chicago Tribune beat writer Paul Sullivan offered his take on the saga in a story the next day.
The Cubs, Sullivan wrote, “wound up with the losing hand in a stare-down with the Tigers, but proved they will spend some money if they find the right fit.”
From my vantage point, however, the Sanchez story looked quite differently for the Cubs. First off, I would hope it’s never been a question of whether one of the wealthiest teams in baseball would spend money at some point.
Rather, the problem with Sanchez was that he didn’t really want the Cubs’ cash, and his rejection of Chicago was instead a stark sign of the challenges that Theo Epstein & Co. will face when attempting to lure A-list free agent pitchers to play for the D-list team at Wrigley Field.
With hindsight being 20/20, it doesn’t appear that the 28-year-old Sanchez – who generally was considered the No. 2 pitcher in the 2012 free agent class behind Zach Greinke – was ever coming to the Cubs. Rather, he almost surely used them as leverage with Detroit.
After all, why would a guy want to join a 101-loss team when he could simply stay put with his World Series runner-up for the same years and money? He wouldn’t, of course.
Reports last week had Sanchez agreeing to a five-year, $75 million contract with Chicago. But, as it turned out, that dalliance instead ended up netting him a five-year, $80 million deal with Detroit. Now, while I think it’s very fair to question just how much money Sanchez – he of the 48-51 career record – is really worth, there’s no question that the Cubs did want him.
Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations, and chairman Tom Ricketts reportedly went so far as to take a recruiting trip down to Miami to woo Sanchez, who had once been a prospect in Epstein’s farm system in Boston. ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted this week that the Cubs have since claimed that despite reports they never felt they were on the cusp on signing Sanchez, only that they were one of the clubs competing to beat out Detroit.
But whichever way you cut it, the Cubs lost out on a highly regarded pitcher that they coveted and considered a potential championship piece. Instead, they’ve ended up settling for another ho-hum starter Carlos Villanueva, who the team reportedly signed to a two-year contract this morning after the previous ho-hum signings of Scott Baker and Scott Feldman.
The Cubs are rumored to also be close to signing yet another mediocre starter in Edwin Jackson by offering him a reported four-year, $52 million deal that seems far too long, far too pricey and fairly desperate.
This chain of unimpressive events has been my concern ever since the Cubs’ 2012 season ended with a whopping 101 losses. With such a poor product on the field, the team has put itself in a very deep hole when it comes to attracting true game-changing free-agent pitchers.
As Sanchez just showed, no top stars right now – especially starting pitchers – are going to want to join an inexperienced, 101-loss team that also comes with the intense pressure of chasing that oh-so-elusive championship at Wrigley Field.
Certainly not when those guys can just as easily sign elsewhere (such as Detroit) and have a better chance of winning immediately. While the Cubs indeed have money, they also hardly have the market cornered on cash (take a look at the way the Angels and Dodgers are spending). And the fact is that the team is going to have to win before they can sign elite free agents and, you know, win.
Such is the Catch-22 of the situation that the Cubs have put themselves – and their overpaying, overly patient fans – in thanks to the path that Theo & Co. have embarked upon.
To be clear, I do like the collection of young position players that the Cubs have compiled. But as the San Francisco Giants again proved this past season, it’s pitching that wins championships. And winning a championship is why Epstein was brought to the Cubs. Ricketts didn’t bring him here just to compete for an NL Central title.
At least, I sure hope not.
And while Epstein deserves time to actualize his supposed championship plan, what has me deeply worried about it is the organization’s lack of clear-cut, top-of-the-rotation-type pitching prospects – you know, the kind of guys that win playoff games.
The team continues to “stockpile” arms as Epstein’s brass likes to say, but my question is whether any of these stockpiled arms are really anything more than just “arms.” The signings of Villanueva, Feldman and Baker – as well as Jackson, if joins the team – appear to simply be the addition of more bodies, rather than somebodies.
If there are stud pitchers in the Cubs’ system that ultimately are going to lead team to a theoretical World Series title, that’s not at all clear. I don’t see any Mark Priors and Kerry Woods in the organization, let alone Justin Verlanders and Matt Cains.
And, sure, fans can hope that the Cubs will simply sign a couple of aces as free agents once the team is ready to really compete for a title. But counting on the Cubs being able to do that at their whim is a huge assumption.
After all, the Cole Hamels of the world often don’t even get to free agency. And if they do, the competition for such elite pitchers is guaranteed to be fierce. There’s simply no guarantee that the Cubs will nab the guy they truly want – if that guy is even ever available.
I sincerely hope this rebuilding plan that the Cubs brain trust has devised works, but I don’t see where the championship-caliber pitching is supposed to come from. And that’s what all this is supposed to be about: A championship.
At least, that’s my perception.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.