Interesting reports were published this month discussing Japanese phenom Yu Darvish signing with an American team this offseason. If you have not heard of Darvish, he is arguably the best player not under contract with an American team. Once he arrives in America, he will rank among the top 5 prospects (if not the #1 prospect) in baseball.
Darvish differs from the typical elite pitching prospect because he lacks top-notch velocity. His fastball is decent (92-94…he can reportedly hit 96), but his strength is his ability to generate incredible movement on his pitches. To be effective, the average major leaguer needs two or three effective secondary pitches. Darvish regularly throws seven pitches, five of which are graded as “plus” by major league scouts, essentially allowing him to spin the ball at will depending on the situation. He made his professional debut in Japan in 2005 at age 18 and quickly established himself as the country’s best player. Over the last four seasons, he has averaged a 1.80 ERA and 200 strikeouts in 200 innings.
Is he Coming?
Speculation regarding Darvish’s arrival in America has been ongoing for 2-3 years, but several issues have kept him in Japan. First, since Darvish is already a huge star in Japan, he is reluctant to leave. Since a large portion of his income comes through endorsements, it’s questionable whether a deal can be structured giving him enough financial incentive to leave. The second issue is Darvish’s team, who would reportedly demand a “posting fee” (i.e., a buyout of his contract) exceeding the $51 million Daisuke Matsuzaka’s Japanese club received from the Red Sox. Therefore, when adding the posting fee together with Darvish’s contract demands, it would cost somewhere well over $100 million to bring Darvish to America.
It’s unclear how serious Darvish and his team are about sending Darvish to America and how much money they are seeking. In my opinion, if the bonus demands remain as expected, two things could happen: (1) Darvish becomes a New York Yankee; or (2) Darvish stays in Japan for another 1-2 seasons. In other words, despite Darvish’s talent, no other team has the financial resources and/or roster situation to justify spending that much on Darvish.
Because of their limitless budget, the Yankees are the only team who could possibly justify spending well over $100 million to acquire Darvish. But Darvish signing with the Yankees would require several things. First, since the Yankees already have C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Javier Vazquez, Phil Hughes, and Andy Pettite, signing Darvish only becomes feasible if the Yankees lose a starter (possibly Pettite) during the off-season. But even if Pettite retires, assuming Darvish’s demands remain as anticipated, the total cost to sign Darvish will be almost the same as the cost to sign Cliff Lee. As a team demanding immediate results, the Yankees would presumably choose Lee if he was available at a comparable price.
Things get more interesting, however, if the Yankees lose Pettite and cannot sign Lee. This year’s class of free agent pitchers drops significantly after Lee, and unless the Yankees want Carl Pavano back (just kidding), luring Darvish to America becomes a very realistic option. But even the Yankees have spending limits. Under these circumstances, rather than risk $100+ million on Darvish, the Yankees could consider acquiring a pitcher through a trade or taking a gamble on Ivan Nova or Dellin Betances.
If Darvish wants “Dice-K money” and does not sign with the Yankees, I think the most likely scenario involves Darvish remaining in Japan. But it’s not unrealistic to assume Darvish’s team will realize—based upon current economic conditions and Dice-K’s performance—the $51 million Dice-K’s team received was an aberration. Since the team gets nothing once Darvish becomes a free agent, they could reduce their asking price to around $30 million. Assuming Darvish’s demands are about $60 million for 5 years (complete guess), the total cost to sign Darvish would be $80-90 million. Although spending $80 million on a pitcher with zero major league experience is an incredible gamble, getting a pitcher with Darvish’s talent for five seasons would make sense for a number of teams.
According to various reports, the other teams interested in Darvish are the Texas Rangers, New York Mets, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, and Atlanta Braves. But in reality, if Darvish is available for the right price, the number of potential suitors will be higher. All these teams pose interesting scenarios for different reasons. The Rangers have increased financial resources from their new ownership and a General Manager who has been willing to gamble on young talent. The Mets could use a potentially elite starter, and have the resources to make a considerable offer. Plus, New York is a desirable location if Darvish is looking for endorsement opportunities. Baltimore is an intriguing option because their new manager—Bobby Valentine—is familiar with Darvish from his time in Japan, and despite the disappointing season, they could decide adding Darvish to their current young stars would be a good long-term move.
While I could be wrong, I don’t see Darvish signing with Atlanta or Tampa Bay. Nobody is better at developing young pitchers than the Rays, but given their plethora of young pitchers, it does not seem like a sensible allocation of resources for Tampa to spend a large portion of their budget on Darvish. I don’t see Atlanta signing Darvish because: (1) like Tampa, they already have a large number of elite young pitchers; and (2) they generally seem to shy away from players with overly-colorful personalities …maybe due to previous incidents (i.e. John Rocker, Deion Sanders/Tim McCarver, etc).
The Angels—who have never been mentioned as a contender to sign Darvish—are an interesting sleeper. To me, Darvish going to the Angels makes a lot of sense if the financial demands remain somewhat reasonable. Los Angeles would be an intriguing market for Darvish because of the endorsement opportunities and its location on the West Coast. Darvish would be a great fit for the Angels given their need for additional starting pitching and their recent focus on acquiring young talent.
Is he Worth It?
I have been an avid Darvish-watcher since 2007. I picked him three years ago in a fantasy baseball keeper league, and since then, I have patiently awaited his arrival in America. But even as a huge believer in Darvish’s talent, I cannot see how a team operating on a budget could justify spending $100 million on a pitcher with no major league experience.
What makes Darvish such an intriguing prospect is his ability to dominate using a pitching style considerably different than anybody else. This unique style could prove to be Darvish’s most effective weapon because unlike the average rookie, to some degree, it’s the major leaguers who will have to adjust to Darvish. Therefore, I think there is a reasonable chance Darvish will immediately be among the 5-10 best pitchers in baseball upon his arrival. He is also a colorful personality who would hopefully spark huge interest from fans and boost attendance.
But it is all speculation, and ironically, many of Darvish’s strengths are also possible weaknesses. First, Darvish’s unique pitching style makes it’s really difficult to tell whether he will succeed in the major leagues. A recent article from mlb.com discussed a scout who predicts Darvish will be good—but not great—in America because the largest factor contributing to his success in Japan is intimidation (which won’t happen here). Second, while a colorful personality can be a good thing, it could also work to Darvish’s disadvantage in terms of handling competition, maintaining work ethic, working well with teammates, etc. Darvish also comes across as a “David Beckham” -type personality, which doesn’t necessarily go over well in the United States. The final concern is Darvish’s Japanese team allowing him to throw a ridiculous number of pitches the last two seasons, which raises some concern about the strain placed on his arm.
Darvish is an excellent pitcher who will make huge headlines if he decided to come to America. For fantasy leaguers, keep him on your radar, and when the opportunity arises, do not hesitate to place him on your roster.
Update: Coincidentally, I just noticed the Crawfish Boxes, one of my favorite sites, did a post about Darvish today. They actually saw Darvish pitch in Japan! It’s a great post that’s worth reading. Unfortunately, my experience with Japanese baseball is limited to youtube and watching ”Mr. Baseball” a few times on TBS. This video is actually funnier than Mr. Baseball.