The Cubs' stealth pursuit of free agent starter Anibal Sanchez appeared to be going smoothly late Thursday afternoon.
There were no rumors linking the two, and no real reason to believe the Cubs suddenly would start splurging after spending a relatively modest $23 million on seven free agents and handing out one-year deals to everyone but Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, who received two years and a vesting option.
USA Today broke the news on Twitter that the Cubs had reached a five-year, $75 million deal with Sanchez, Cubs fans awoke from their winter malaise and saluted the team for adding a quality starter on a long-term deal.
But, like recent "trades" for the Braves' Randall Delgado and the Angels' Dan Haren that didn't pan out after being leaked on Twitter, the Sanchez signing appeared to be another case of premature celebration.
As of late Thursday night, there was no Sanchez deal to report, and the Cubs weren't optimistic. A source confirmed USA Today's corrected report that Sanchez's agent, Gene Mato, had taken the Cubs' proposal back to the Tigers to see if they would match or beat the terms.
Cubs President Theo Epstein declined comment.
If Sanchez winds up back with the Tigers, it would be deja vu of sorts for Epstein, who would have been credited with making his boldest move since taking over the Cubs.
Epstein thought he had Delgado from the Braves last July before Ryan Dempster declined to waive his no-trade rights after hearing about the trade on Twitter. And Epstein thought he had Haren for Carlos Marmol last month before stopping the deal shortly after Marmol confirmed the trade to a Dominican reporter, who spread it on Twitter.
Sanchez, 28, is considered the second-most coveted starter on the market behind Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year, $147 million deal with the Dodgers. The signing would have given the Cubs a formidable threesome of Sanchez, Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija, with rehabbing Scott Baker in the four No. 4 spot and Scott Feldman as No. 5.
As it turns out, Baker and Feldman apparently were intended just as appetizers and not the entree for the Cubs.
"Given the way the market has acted, we feel it was a wise move to get those guys done," general manager Jed Hoyer said last Friday. "And we'll still (try to add starting pitching), but with the ability to be a little more discerning now."
Sanchez has a career 48-51 record and 3.75 earned-run average, playing on mostly mediocre-to-bad Marlins teams. But he proved his ability during the Tigers' playoff run after being dealt in July, and again with a sterling postseason.
Sanchez has the kind of power arm and durability teams love, and is still young enough to merit a five-year deal.
If Sanchez stays with the Tigers, as now is expected, the mere news of a $75 million proposal signals the Cubs aren't willing to make 2013 a so-called "throwaway" season in the rebuilding plan, as their previous signings suggested. Apparently they aren't satisfied with simply squirreling away their payroll savings, unless Sanchez was the only free agent for whom they considered going all in.
Epstein said at the start of the offseason they wanted to add to core players like Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Samardzija. The Cubs waited for the starters' market to develop before making their surprising move, only to watch it leaked before the deal was done.
The addition of Sanchez could have given the Cubs more leeway to deal Garza, who is entering his final season before free agency.
Garza, 29, has similar numbers to Sanchez with a 57-61 career record and 3.84 ERA. A lack of run support from the Cubs, along with his peculiar defensive woes, cost Garza several victories over the last two seasons. But if he rebounds from the elbow problems that sidelined him the final two months of 2012 and pitches like he's capable, Garza could make even more than Sanchez in next year's free agent market.
And now that he knows how much the Cubs were offering Sanchez, Garza can adjust his asking price accordingly.