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Theo vs. Evil Empire: How the Cubs move on from the Tanaka fallout

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The urban legend had Theo Epstein destroying a hotel room after he found out Jose Contreras decided on the New York Yankees.

The youngest GM in baseball history had been on the job for almost a month when the big Cuban pitcher established residency in Nicaragua just before Christmas 2002. Hoping to freeze out everyone else, Epstein and Boston Red Sox international scouting director Louie Eljaua hatched the plan to rent out all the rooms in the small hotel in Managua.

That’s where Contreras and his agent, Jaime Torres, posted up for the meetings. Together, they smoked cigars and drank booze, selling the idea of winning at Fenway Park, how they would help him adapt to life in the United States, making it seem like a sure thing.

[RELATED – Cubs excited to welcome Yankees back to Wrigley Field]

Until, of course, Contreras wound up taking more money from the Yankees, grabbing a four-year, $32 million deal. That led Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, Epstein’s mentor/nemesis, to tell The New York Times: “The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.”

“I didn’t trash the room,” Epstein said. “The story was that I picked up a chair and threw it through a window or something. I didn’t. I slammed a door, which didn’t break. That was it.”

Now 40 years old, with two World Series rings and a president’s title, Epstein has thought of the Contreras pursuit while rebuilding the Cubs, trying to channel all the frustrations and stay focused on the big picture.

“It’s more about process and living to fight another day,” Epstein said. “Even if you think you lose, you win sometimes. You think you’ve won, you’ve lost.”

“We don’t know (bleep)”

Masahiro Tanaka is who the Cubs thought he would be when they made a six-year, $120 million offer last winter – someone with the stuff, guts and intelligence to be a frontline pitcher in the big leagues. They just didn’t think he’d be doing it in their pinstripes.

Tanaka is unbeaten in his last 42 regular-season starts and will face the National League’s worst team on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. At 6-0 with a 2.17 ERA – and 66 strikeouts against seven walks through 58 innings – Tanaka will be in the Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and All-Star starter conversations.

[MORE – After rocky start, Travis Wood turns the corner]

Epstein’s front office expected a big-market team like the Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers to push the bidding to a place that could cripple a payroll limited by ownership’s leveraged partnership, as well as the uncertainties surrounding the Wrigley Field renovations and the next TV deals.

That final bid didn’t even include the $20 million release fee for Tanaka’s Japanese club, and it didn’t come close to the seven-year, $155 million megadeal the Yankees gave their new ace.

The Cubs did beat the Yankees for $30 million Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler with the help of Eljaua, who got hired by the Jim Hendry administration and stayed on as a key presence for the franchise in Latin America.

But mostly it’s been one disappointment after another at Clark and Addison. There was a point where the Cubs thought they were going to sign Soler and Yoenis Cespedes, until the Oakland A’s offered $36 million over four years instead of six.

The Cubs were played by Anibal Sanchez, who got $80 million guaranteed from the Detroit Tigers and led the American League in ERA last season.

[MORE – Edwin Jackson’s dominant effort spoils Matt Garza’s return]

The Cubs were blown away in the Hyun-Jin Ryu bidding, with the Dodgers getting the South Korean right-hander who recently turned 27 and has gone 17-10 with a 3.00 ERA through his first 37 starts.

Driven by rumors and Chicago media leaks, even last year’s manager search had a runner-up feeling, with Joe Girardi staying in The Bronx and Yankees GM Brian Cashman saying: “I never felt he was leaving us.”

In Year 3 of the full-scale rebuild, the Cubs are looking for silver linings.

“(Matt) Garza blacks out a 96 mph fastball to Matt Holliday in the summer of 2012 in St. Louis,” Epstein said. “We think we’re going to clean up in a trade for him. We might be able to get Mike Olt. And then an inning later, he walks off the mound holding his elbow and we get nothing.

“We thought we lost. It turns out we won, because a year later, (Garza) pitched great for five weeks and we were able to trade him for C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt, Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez.”

[RELATED – Wrigley return doesn’t end Matt Garza’s frustration]

So is this the older, wiser Theo?

“I was still pissed,” Epstein said. “But it’s just the more experiences you have, you realize you never know in this game. We had an organizational credo at the Red Sox when I first started, which we would always bring up from time to time: ‘We don’t know (bleep).’

“Basically, as a reminder that when you think you have the game figured out, look closer, because you don’t. There are so many arbitrary aspects to this game, so much luck involved. If you’re on a roll, you’re making good decisions, you think you have something figured out, you probably just got a little bit lucky and karma will get you.”

Keeping the “powder dry”

Epstein left Boston thinking he’d be running another superpower, the Evil Empire of the Midwest.

The Cubs are 15-27 and heading toward another summer sell-off and another last-place finish. All the talk is about the draft and the farm system, questioning why Javier Baez is struggling at Triple-A Iowa and wondering why Kris Bryant hasn’t been promoted from Double-A Tennessee, without realizing the irony.

Tanaka, who’s only 25 years old, would have changed the conversation and given some credibility to the franchise’s business/baseball plans.

Where would the Yankees be without Tanaka? Injuries have shredded the rotation, but they’re still a first-place team, 7-1 on the days he pitches and 16-19 when he doesn’t.

After losing the Tanaka sweepstakes, the Cubs kept most of their “powder dry,” signing Jason Hammel (4-2, 3.06 ERA) to a one-year deal, hoping he can keep boosting his trade value with another strong start on Tuesday against Alfonso Soriano, Derek Jeter and the Bronx Bombers.

After seeing what pre-DL Jose Abreu had done on the South Side, Cubs fans hope the game-changing moves are still out there. After all, Contreras (78-67, 4.57 ERA) never lived up to the enormous expectations, lasting parts of two seasons in New York before getting traded to the White Sox (and helping them win the 2005 World Series).

[RELATED – Can any Cubs prospect match what Jose Abreu has done?]

“‘We don’t know (bleep)’ is a way to remind yourself – and remind everyone around you – that there is way more we don’t know about the game than what we do know about the game,” Epstein said. “All you can really do is set a vision, hire great people, make sure your processes are really sound and keep trying to get better each day and let things fall where they may. That’s as true now as it was then.”

Jose Bautista: “I haven’t had to” pay for a meal in Toronto since famous bat flip

Toronto Blue Jays Jose Bautista flips his bat after hitting a three-run home run against the Texas Rangers during the seventh inning in Game 5 of baseball's American League Division Series, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015 in Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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Arguably the most memorable moment of the 2015 season came in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the ALDS between the Blue Jays and Rangers. The game was tied 3-3, but the Jays were threatening with runners on the corners and two outs. Jose Bautista launched a 1-1 Sam Dyson fastball for a no-doubt tie-breaking three-run home run that would send the Jays into the ALCS to face the eventual world champion Royals.

Bautista didn’t immediately run to first base after hitting the home run. He admired it, looked at Dyson, and then flipped his bat triumphantly. As far as bat flips go, it was a 10 out of 10. Yasiel Puig was proud.

The six-time All-Star admitted “I haven’t had to” pay for a meal in Toronto since that moment in the ALDS, as Jonah Birenbaum notes for The Score. Bautista also served as the assistant coach for musician Drake at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. As Drew noted earlier, Bautista had a pretty nice view at the NBA Slam Dunk Contest as well.

The Jays are hopeful to sign Bautista, 35, to a multi-year extension. In six seasons since breaking out with the club in 2010, he has hit .268/.390/.555 with 227 home runs and 582 RBI in 3,604 plate appearances. No one has hit more home runs since the start of the 2010 season, as Miguel Cabrera is the closest at 199. And only Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Robinson Cano, and Albert Pujols have driven in more runs in that span of time. It’s easy to see why, despite his age, the Jays want to keep Bautista around a little while longer.

Dallas Keuchel, Astros did talk long-term contract

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Dallas Keuchel‘s agent Darek Braunecker told MLB Network Radio in early January that he had not engaged in any long-term contract negotiations with the Astros’ front office. Two weeks later, the sides reached a one-year, $7.25 million agreement, avoiding a salary arbitration hearing. So was a bigger financial commitment ever discussed?

Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle has the answer, writing in his offseason review that the “Astros and Keuchel have had substantial talks about extensions [this winter] … but to no avail.”

Keuchel carries all the leverage in the world after winning the 2015 American League Cy Young Award with a 2.48 ERA, 1.017 WHIP, and 216/51 K/BB ratio in 232 innings. He also made three appearances in the postseason to a 2.57 ERA in 14 frames.

Keuchel’s $7.25 million salary for 2016 will be a record for a player in his first year of arbitration eligibility. Locking up some of his free agent years (2019, 2020, 2021, etc.) would likely take a commitment of $120 million or more.

Houston has the 28-year-old left-hander under contractual control through 2018, and it sounds like the plan is to go season-to-season with his salaries.

He’ll remain a huge value to a good-looking Astros team.

Yadier Molina gets cast removed from surgically-repaired thumb

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Yadier Molina underwent surgery to repair a ligament tear in his right thumb shortly after the Cardinals were eliminated from the NLDS by the Cubs, and then he needed a followup procedure two months later.

It’s been an offseason of rest and rehab for the seven-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glover, though he’s about ready to ramp up the intensity of workouts with the beginning of spring training approaching …

Brayan Pena was signed to a two-year, $5 million free agent contract this winter to provide more reliable depth behind the plate. He’ll be the Cardinals’ starter at catcher come Opening Day if Yadi isn’t quite ready.

Molina started a whopping 131 games behind the plate in 2015.

Jose Fernandez wants $30 million a year, Marlins don’t plan on paying

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You’ve heard the stories by now. Jose Fernandez does not get along with Marlins management and is doubtful to sign a long-term contract with the team.

There’s still time for those relationships to be repaired — Fernandez can’t become a free agent until after the 2018 season — but we also have a monetary issue at play.

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald writes Sunday that the Marlins are “under the impression” Fernandez and his representatives want $30 million per year on a long-term deal, a figure the Marlins “have no plans to meet.”

If the Marlins won’t pay, Fernandez and his reps will seek that number when the ace right-hander reaches free agency. That could be the same offseason Bryce Harper tries for $500 million.

A friend of Fernandez told Jackson that the 23-year-old native of Cuba was upset about some of the trades the Marlins made last summer and the removal of pitching coach Chuck Hernandez. You probably heard talk of Miami shopping Fernandez this winter, but the asking price was predictably sky-high.

Fernandez has been limited to 19 starts over the last two years because of Tommy John surgery and a biceps injury, but he boasts a stellar 2.40 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and 10.5 K/9 in 289 career major league frames. He will make $2.8 million in 2016 and carries two more years of arbitration eligibility.

If he can put together a run of 30-start, 200-inning seasons, Fernandez will get that $30 million per year and probably much more.