Instead, many baseball fans in New York celebrated the Year of Tanaka from Times Square to the Bronx.
Damn Yankees indeed.
First, manager Joe Girardi chose to stay in navy pinstripes in October rather than return home to the Cubs after they fired Dale Sveum. Now, pitcher Masahiro Tanaka signed a seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees that made the Cubs' quiet offseason even more off-putting.
Of the three other teams whose bids reportedly fell short — the White Sox, Dodgers and Astros — none invested as much hope as the Cubs did this winter on the pitcher who went 24-0 for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan. Thoughts of Tanaka pitching at Wrigley Field had energized a Cubs fan base fed up with minor deals and major disappointments. So much suspense surrounded the announcement that reporters resorted to translating Tanaka's Twitter feed for clues.
Then around 10 a.m. Wednesday, Tanaka pulled the plug on Cubs President Theo Epstein's hot stove.
What is Japanese for cruel tease?
Signing left-handed free-agent starter Paul Maholm, the Cubs' next-best alternative, instead of Tanaka would be like going from Beyonce performing at the Super Bowl to Bruno Mars. Fans will get a professional performance but expect much less buzz.
If you fully believe in the Cubs' rebuilding plan, being turned down by Tanaka unlikely will shake your faith. The Cubs can stay on course by continuing efforts to trade Jeff Samardzija, who hinted that Tanaka signing elsewhere would make the Cubs' most popular pitcher more willing to change scenery. With or without Tanaka, the Cubs appeared headed toward at least 90 losses in 2014. No matter how much command the 25-year-old possesses, a guy pitching every five days can't fill holes in the lineup that will take years to patch.
If you started wondering about the Cubs since they admitted a big mistake when they fired Sveum, on the other hand, then missing out on Tanaka provides more ammunition to question Epstein's ability to close deals in Chicago as well as he did in Boston.
You rightly want to know how a guy with Epstein's gravitas can do the equivalent of planning the party of the winter around a guest of honor who decides not to show up. You demand something more defining in the way of free-agent signings than Edwin Jackson. Two World Series rings with the Red Sox requires we hold Epstein to a higher standard than, say, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn.
When Hahn reacted to the Tanaka news in a teleconference with the quote of the day — "You miss on 100 percent of the shots you don't take,'' Hahn said boldly — it reflected the ambitious creativity the Sox have applied to a productive offseason. Hahn didn't need Tanaka to convince anybody his team had improved since September — like Epstein did.
Truth is, signing a pitcher as talented as Tanaka represented as much to the Cubs off the field as on it. If the Cubs bid as high as $150 million, as some reports suggest, it was money earmarked for restoring credibility to the Ricketts regime badly in need of a jolt as much as for retooling the top of the rotation.
The small fortune saved could prove useful once the Cubs are in position to use it on a player to get them over the top. Tanaka's salary could have been split between the marketing and baseball budgets because of how it would have altered, more than anything, the tired narrative on the North Side, where rooftops and a mascot warrant too much attention.
At this stage of the Cubs' growth, Tanaka was more symbol than savior, an expensive but ingenious way to change the subject, a sign to the masses the Cubs were serious about winning sooner rather than later. Even if that depends more on the development of elite minor league prospects than on a single starting pitcher. By the time the Cubs will be in position to contend seriously for a World Series, Tanaka probably would have been contemplating opting out of his contract, based on his Yankees deal that permits that option after 2017.
The ready-to-win Yankees, who have spent $491 million this offseason, can afford to gamble on a pitcher whose next major league start will be his first. They are closer to a reward to take a $155 million risk than the Cubs are — which always made their pursuit of Tanaka perplexing.
On the day the Cubs were unable to make what would have been the announcement of their offseason, perhaps no news eventually will be considered good news.