The Chicago Cubs weren't expected to be major players in free agency this winter, and for good reason. It's still early in Theo Epstein's rebuilding project, so now's not the best time to make it rain.
But then BAM! Suddenly there were Anibal Sanchez rumors everywhere on Thursday. With no warning at all, the Cubs found themselves right in the thick of the Hot Stove hype machine. It was like Epstein was running the Boston Red Sox again.
...And that's not necessarily a good thing.
Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com reported on Thursday that the Cubs' offer to Sanchez was certainly legit at five years and $75 million. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported on Friday that they actually offered Sanchez $77 million.
It was not to be. Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch reached deep into his pockets and gave Sanchez a five-year deal worth $80 million, as reported by Nightengale. The Cubs gave it their all, but Sanchez can't be faulted for taking the extra coin and going back to a place he knows well.
Still, Epstein and his underlings tipped a hand of sorts. They didn't get their man, but they did send a message that should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism.
The big question: What exactly were they thinking in choosing to target such a big-ticket free agent?
If you disregard where the Cubs are right now, then Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer would have made a solid signing had they actually landed Sanchez. He's been one of the league's better right-handers over the last three years, logging close to 600 innings and compiling an ERA of 3.70.
Per FanGraphs, Sanchez has also accumulated a WAR of 12.0 since 2010. That's better than Josh Johnson, Doug Fister and James Shields, which is good company to keep for a right-handed starter.
If Sanchez had come aboard, the Cubs would have a rotation of him, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman. That's a rotation that could have done some damage, and behind it the Cubs would have been sure to improve on their 61-101 record from 2012.
The money would have been big, to be sure. But in a market where Zack Greinke is getting $24.5 million per year and relievers like Brandon League and Jonathan Broxton are getting $7 million per year, an average annual salary of $15.4 million for Sanchez isn't so bad.
So without context, "Huzzahs!" would have been in order. The Cubs would have landed a coveted pitcher at a fair price, no easy task for a rebuilding team.
Put context back into the equation, though, and the question becomes why now?
Epstein has barely been at the controls for a year, and his promise to build a "foundation for sustained success" is still unfulfilled. The Cubs have shed some dead weight and stocked all levels of the organization with quality talent, but their foundation is still only half-baked.
The signings the Cubs have made this offseason are signings that a rebuilding team should be making. Scott Baker, Scott Feldman and Nate Schierholtz all got one-year deals that could make them easy trade bait come the July deadline. Dan Haren would have been trade bait too had the Cubs managed to acquire him. The two-year deal the Cubs have for Japanese hurler Kyuji Fujikawa is a team-friendly deal that could also be moved in the future.
In light of these contracts, the deal the Cubs offered Sanchez didn't fit.
They made like a competitive team and made Sanchez a competitive offer despite the fact that they're still short of being a competitive team. Even with Sanchez in tow, the Cubs would not have gone from being a 61-win team to being a 90-win team so easily.
Granted, Sanchez would have been the Cubs' to enjoy for a while. His five-year deal could have ended up overlapping with the Cubs' return to relevance, in which case their decision to pick him up when they did would have been remembered as a shrewd move.
But at the same time, maybe not. Sanchez has a history of right shoulder problems that could have come back to bite the Cubs, in which case they would have found themselves burdened with a Jim Hendry-esque albatross contract.
Even if Sanchez had signed and gone on to stay healthy, there's the possibility that the rebuilding process would have been delayed to the point where he wouldn't have been able to help the Cubs achieve anything. His contract would have been a nice idea, but a pointless one in the end,
Uncertainty was the name of the game when Epstein came aboard. And though he has made Cubs' future brighter, much is still uncertain. With the 2013 season shaping up to be another "Let's see what we have" campaign, Epstein has picked a very odd time to swing for the fences in free agency.
It's why he picked such an odd time to be so bold that should have Cubs fans concerned, as Epstein may have unwittingly displayed that he hasn't learned his lesson. Reckless free-agent signings killed his tenure with the Red Sox, and the club's flirtation with Sanchez had a slight aroma of recklessness.
You wonder if Epstein has even thought to heed his own words at any point during the process.
"Some of the offseasons that we had were more offseasons of convenience -- giving in to the need to be good next year," said Epstein of his tenure in Boston, via ESPNBoston.com. He added: "Sometimes, on the business side, it's important to sort of have something with some sizzle in an offseason."
That's exactly what the Sanchez situation felt like: Sizzle. It felt like a tease of bright days to come, but only a tease and nothing more. Epstein may have just been attempting to throw Cubs fans a bone.
Maybe he was getting the sense that no fans really give a darn about the players the Cubs have acquired this winter. Or maybe it was ownership that was getting the sense that nobody gives a darn, and an order came down for Epstein to do something with more sizzle.
Neither thought is encouraging. If Epstein took a directive from ownership, then he allowed his master plan to be overruled. If Sanchez was his idea, then he clearly hasn't learned that courting big-money free agents is a treacherous game.
Big ticket free-agent signings didn't save the Red Sox towards the end of Epstein's tenure, and the wreckage piled up so high after his departure that his replacement had to totally detonate the roster he had been handed. It may take years for the Red Sox to recover from Epstein's folly.
Epstein was going to have to know better than to repeat his past mistakes upon arriving in Chicago, and big signings weren't going to help the Cubs anyway. He was tasked with building a championship team from scratch, and he claimed to understand what he was up against.
"We're going to have to grind our way to the top," he said.
This is still the case now, and it would have still been the case had the Cubs landed Sanchez. If the deal had gone through, however, Epstein clearly would have been hoping that he was steering the organization toward a shortcut to its ultimate goal.
For now, things are cool. The deal didn't happen. Some Cubs fans are surely disappointed. Others realize that it's on with the rebuild, which is looking good and could pay off as promised in the end. There's no reason to despair.
But still, you wonder. Epstein said that the Cubs are going to grind their way to the top, but he just tried to tear a page out of one of his old books. He just flirted with turning the Cubs' methodical rebuild into a mad science project reminiscent of the one that killed the Red Sox.
You also wonder if Epstein is finished. He may now try to turn over other stones in free agency. After missing out on Sanchez, perhaps the Cubs will give Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher or Kyle Lohse a call. It could be that Epstein is determined to make a major signing, no matter who it is.
There's a slippery slope there. One major signing won't hurt, but there will be cause for concern if a major signing begets more signings. The last thing the Cubs need at this point in their history is to become just another team of hired guns with a high floor but a low ceiling.
"In Theo We Trust" used to be the saying in Boston. Cubs fans should feel free to use it, but whatever optimism they have should come with a fair amount of caution after the Sanchez saga.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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