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.”

Derek Jeter and Jeb Bush still don’t have the money to buy the Marlins

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Despite all of the excitement yesterday about Derek Jeter and Jeb Bush “winning” the bidding for the Miami Marlins, there remains one minor detail: they don’t have the money.

At least not yet. That’s according to the Wall Street Journal which reports that, as recently as Monday afternoon, Jeter and Bush were calling bankers and other potential financiers to put up the $1.3-1.6 billion needed to buy the team. Jeter and Bush may be rich men, but they’re not that rich, and the WSJ reports that they’d merely be the front men with the real cash coming from silent partners.

Oftentimes men come along who want to buy a major league baseball team who have gobs of cash but do not pass muster with MLB on a personal level. At the moment, anyway, the Bush-Jeter group has the opposite problem. If they get the dough, MLB will no doubt welcome them into the ownership club with open arms. They just need to get the dough.

A detail, I presume, which will eventually be remedied. But not a minor detail.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Astros 4, Indians 2: Dallas Keuchel does it again. This time he tosses a complete game, allowing only two solo homers. He’s 4-0 on the season with a 1.22 ERA, keeping everything low and forcing opposing hitters to beat the ball into the ground for the most part. It’s like 2015 all over again. Scary moment, though, when Jose Altuve and Teoscar Hernandez collided while chasing a pop fly. Each left the game, but Altuve could theoretically play today. Hernandez is likely to miss some time with a leg contusion.

Cubs 1, Pirates 0: Kyle Hendricks shut out the Pirates for six innings on four hits and three relievers finished the job, allowing only one hit more. Gerrit Cole shut down the Cubs for seven innings and allowed only two hits, but a throwing error by second baseman Alen Hanson allowed the game’s lone run to score. Tough break for Cole. The Pirates have allowed more unearned runs (15) and have committed more errors (20) than any team in baseball this year.

Rays 2, Orioles 0: Erasmo Ramirez was supposed to start for the Rays, but because of the cold, rainy conditions that seemed like would lead to rain delays, manager Kevin Cash instead made it a bullpen game, running five relievers out there. Austin Pruitt started and went three innings and Chase Whitley chipped in three later in the game and was adjudged the winner by the official scorer. The results: great for Tampa Bay, as the five men combined on a two-hit shutout. This is the kind of game I fear will set a bad precedent, however. Might we one day have a dreadful future when this dynamic, combined with some new roster rules, leads to a couple of games a week when clubs consist of, essentially, 14-man pitching staffs and bullpen games become common occurrences? (shudder)

Tigers 19, Mariners 9: Or maybe I shouldn’t fear bullpen games that much? Here Felix Hernandez was chased after two innings in which he allowed four runs on six hits — the team would later say he’s suffering from dead arm — turning this into a defacto bullpen game. The bullpen . . . was lacking. Detroit beat the tar out of ’em, piling up 24 hits, despite Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Jose Iglesias‘s absences. The Tigers bullpen wasn’t great, even with a commanding lead, yielding four runs in three innings of work. In all the teams combined for 40 hits and 14 walks in a nine inning game that went three hours and forty-three minutes. Ugly.

Brewers 9, Reds 1: Eric Thames homered again — his 11th of the year, eight of which have come against the Reds — but the game was well out of hand by then. Zach Davies tossed five shutout innings. Hernan Perez hit two RBI triples and a homer while Jonathan Villar hit two two-run singles.

Twins 8, Rangers 1: A seven run fifth inning made this one a laugher. Ervin Santana, Major League Baseball’s current ERA leader, allowed one run, four hits and one walk while striking out six in seven innings. Miguel Sano hit a 424-foot homer in the fifth and, later that same inning, singled in another run.

White Sox 10, Royals 5: The Chisox post double digits on the Royals for the second straight night. Todd Frazier had two doubles and drove in three. Leury Garcia and Omar Narvaez each knocked in a couple. Kansas City has dropped six straight and are off to their worst start since 2012. I guess the Royals Renaissance is no more.

Blue Jays 6, Cardinals 5: We talked about this at length already, but boy howdy, do we need to see it again:

That’s the sort of thing a guy writing a baseball movie would put in the script only to have it cut out later by the director because it’s too unrealistic.

Just as impressive, even if it wasn’t as visually spectacular, was Marcus Stroman, who wasn’t even supposed to be working yesterday, pinch-hitting in the 11th inning, knocking a double for his first big league hit, and coming around to score the go-ahead and, ultimately, winning run.

Nationals 15, Rockies 12: Trea Turner hit for the cycle, knocking a single in the first, a two-run double in the second, a two-run homer in the sixth and a bases-loaded triple in the seventh, driving in seven runs in all. But it wasn’t just him, as Coors Field featured Pitchers Need Not Apply Night. These two combined for 27 runs on 29 hits and eight walks, given up by a combined 11 pitchers. All on a cold night, too.

Diamondbacks 9, Padres 3: Paul Goldschmidt had four hits, a dinger included, and drove in three. He’s driven in at least two runs in four straight games. Chris Owings drove in three and Daniel Descalso hit a solo homer. The Dbacks are 14-8, with a 10-2 record at Chase Field.

Angels 2, Athletics 1: Traffic can be rough in Orange County, but you could’ve showed up over two hours late for this one and not missed any scoring, as it was tied at zero for nine innings. Josh Phegley hit a pinch-hit homer for Oakland in the top of the 10th, Mike Trout countered with a solo shot of his own in the bottom half and then Kole Calhoun walked ’em off with an RBI single in the bottom of the 11th off of Ryan Madson. Lost in all of this were excellent performances from the A’s Jesse Hahn, who allowed only one hit over eight shutout innings, and the Angels JC Ramirez, who allowed only two hits over seven. So, no, you maybe didn’t want to miss the first couple hours of this one. Pitching rules.

Dodgers 2, Giants 1: Clayton Kershaw certainly rules. The ace of aces allowed one run while scattering six hits over seven innings while striking out seven. All this on a night when he didn’t have his best stuff and had a wrapped up leg after being hit by a pitch early in the game. The Dodgers snapped a six-game losing streak in AT&T Park.

Marlins vs. Phillies; Yankees vs. Red Sox; Braves vs. Mets — POSTPONED:

Last time I was here, it was rainin’
It ain’t raining anymore
The streets were drowned, and the water’s waning
All the runes washed to shore
Now I’m here lookin’ through the rubble
Tryin’ to find out who we were
Last time I was here, it was rainin’
Ain’t rainin’ anymore