For the first time in the Epstein-Hoyer Era, the Cubs will pursue a top free agent, Japanese starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.
As the MLB offseason winds down and the pickings get slimmer and slimmer for every team, each club figures to have a couple of more players on their Christmas wish list that didn't quite make it for the holiday season. For the Chicago Cubs, there are two remaining players that could land in Chicago by the time the snow melts in the spring.
With most of the hitters off the open market, there are two arms that President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer are upset weren't in their stockings on Wednesday.
The relief pitcher that could land in the Windy City in the coming weeks is former South Sider Jesse Crain.
Reliever Jesse Crain
While he only appeared in 38 games last season due to a shoulder strain, Crain had a sterling ERA of 0.74 a season ago. For that reason, several teams are going to be in the running for the shutdown right hander.
A key competitor for Crain's services could be the Colorado Rockies. The 32-year-old grew up in Boulder, Colorado. According to the Denver Post's Troy Renck, the Rockies were interested in trading for the set-up man last summer, and he recently tweeted that they could easily pursue him as winter rolls on.
Due to health concerns, it could be a few more weeks until Crain signs with a team. That will allow ample time for teams to assess his health situation and see how live his arm looks. If his arm looks nearly as good as it did last season, several teams will want to ink him to a deal.
For the Cubs, as long as Crain appears healthy it seems like he will get an offer from the North Siders, according to Bruce Levine on Twitter.
Adding Crain would solidify an already drastically improved bullpen for the Cubs. Having a back-end of the bullpen consisting of James Russell, Pedro Strop, Crain and Jose Veras would instantly impact the Cubs' win total in 2014 and beyond.
Crain made $4.5 million a season ago, finishing the final year of a three-year, $13 million deal. Based on his injury situation, Crain will likely take a pay cut. However, it's also likely that Crain will seek a short-term, one- or two-year deal while trying to prove his health and effectiveness.
Starting Pitcher Masahiro Tanaka
The sole big-name free agent that the Cubs have expressed interest in this offseason is Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka.
Based on his stat line of 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA a season ago playing for Rakuten in the JPPL, a bidding war is brewing for the 25-year-old righty. In the bidding war, traditional powers such as the New York Yankees will be preparing their biggest weapons: their pocketbooks.
Unfortunately, it may be tough for the Cubs to compete with those teams for Tanaka on a number of different fronts.
The Yankees may be able to outbid the Cubs if they want Tanaka badly enough. They've already been frivolous, signing catcher Brian McCann and outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran and probably aren't done yet. Deep pockets in New York may prevent Tanaka from landing in Chicago.
How will the Cubs' offseason end?
Playing on the West Coast, the Dodgers have a clear geographical advantage over the other teams in the running for Tanaka. Simply because of their proximity to Japan and the population of Asian-Americans on the West Coast, the Dodgers may have an advantage over other suitors if the amount of money involved is equal.
One thing that the Rangers have that other suitors don't is a pitcher that recently came over from Asia to the United States. Yu Darvish, who finished second in American League Cy Young voting in 2013, was signed by Texas in the offseason before the 2012 season.
By being frugal with their money the past couple of seasons, the Cubs have put themselves in a position to go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Yankees and Dodgers in a bidding war. Signing Tanaka could come down to just how much the Cubs front office wants the young pitcher.
Should the Cubs sign Tanaka, it could have a trickle-down effect on the Jeff Samardzija situation as well, according to Bruce Levine on Twitter.
If Tanaka ends up in Chicago, both sides could see things differently. For one, Samardzija will see that the club is committed to contending sooner rather than later. Based on past contract discussions, the ability for the Cubs to contend has seemed like the most important thing to Samardzija, assuming the sides can agree monetarily.
Clearly, adding either Crain, Tanaka or both would be beneficial for the Cubs in 2014 and beyond. Signing Crain could be a low-risk, high-reward move, and winning the bidding war for Tanaka could speed up the contention timeline for the Cubs.
Only time will tell where these two and other free agents land as the offseason comes to a close. The Cubs front office and fans alike are holding out hope that their Christmas wish lists get a few more check marks by winter's end.