If you pay attention to rumors, you know the Rangers are targeting everyone… and no one. In this early stage of the Hot Stove season, we’ve decided to put together guides to the most prominent offseason targets.
Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish stands out for many reasons. He’s put up unbelievable numbers in Nippon Professional Baseball. He’ll hit the market at 25 if his team, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, makes him available. And as the biggest star never to have played domestically, he will open up a new world of merchandise and marketing opportunities to whichever team and market ends up with him.
Patrick Newman writes for npbtracker.com, the premier site for English-speakers trying to keep up with Japanese baseball. Naturally, he’s a perfect person to consult with about Yu Darvish.
First… there have been a lot of mixed reports on Darvish’s desire to jump continents and leagues during this offseason. What’s your feeling on his intentions?
Patrick: For me it hasn't been that mixed. Darvish has consistently said he hasn't decided yet. He's clearly considering it though, and I think a lot of people are drawing the conclusion that he'll make the jump this year. I've heard that his team, Nippon Ham, really wants to post him, and some their owner's comments in the media back that up.
My take is that we'll see Darvish in MLB eventually and I think there's a good chance he'll come this offseason. There's not much left for him to accomplish in Japan, aside from going after career records, and I think he'll want to compete at the highest level. I found some signs that he might be preparing for the jump as well.
What’s Darvish’s repertoire like? Does he have the stuff to be a #1 MLB starter?
Patrick: He's got a big repertoire. His basic stuff is: a four-seam fastball that sits around 93 and reaches 96/97, a cutter and a two-seamer/shuuto at around 90-91, a downward breaking slider that is really more like a power curve at 80-83, a big horizontally-breaking slider at about 85. He'll also throw a big, slow 12-6 curve at about 68-70mph, which is an automatic strike when he gets it over. And finally, he's got a changeup and a forkball/splitter that kind of come and go from his repertoire.
My guess is that he'd focus more on his best stuff in MLB.
I must confess I didn't watch very much MLB this season, but he has better stuff than a lot of top starters I saw this year (basically guys who pitched against the A's or Giants, I live in the Bay Area). I remember watching Clay Buchholz [considered to have very good arsenal] pitch against Oakland on TV and thinking his stuff didn't look as good as Darvish's. So I'd say he could potentially be an MLB ace. The talent is there.
Walk numbers generally don’t translate very well from the NPB to American ball. Does Darvish’s command pass muster, or has he just taken advantage of suspect plate discipline?
Patrick: Well, he throws all his pitches for strikes, and he usually doesn't miss the zone by much. Darvish does get swinging strikes on pitches that wind up out of the zone, particularly with his two sliders. I think it'll come down to adjusting to the mental aspects of the transition -- particularly MLB catchers' game calling, and being consistently challenged for the first time since the beginning of his pro career. On the other hand, there are more big-power, big-strikeout home run hitters in the US than there are in Japan.
What are his batted-ball tendencies? Does Darvish keep the ball down?
Patrick: He's allowed five home runs each of the last two seasons, in 200+ innings of work (232 this year). One of the homers he allowed this year was an inside-the-park hr caused by a blunder by his left fielder. He will elevate his fastball, usually when he wants to blow one by a guy at 96.
Put into context how good Darvish is in relation to other Japanese stars. Is he the country’s best pitcher? Does he compare favorably with where Daisuke Matsuzaka was when posted?
Patrick: Darvish is without a doubt the top pitcher in Japan. He's not totally peerless, there always seems to be a guy with him (Masahiro Tanaka of Rakuten had a 1.27 ERA this year, Hisashi Iwakuma was similarly great a few years ago). The difference is that Darvish does it every year.
He's been more successful as a pro than Matsuzaka was in Japan. Darvish's career ERA at 1.99 is better than Matsuzaka's best season, which was 2.15 the year before he left. They are similar in that they both have a large arsenal of pitches and a similar fastball velocity, but Darvish has a better physique and has been more statistically dominant.
For me the important thing is not to fall into the trap of comparing Darvish's potential to Dice-K's spectacular flameout.
Do you have a feel for (approximately) how much it will cost a team to acquire Darvish, then sign him?
Patrick: Well, a lot. I kind of doubt an MLB club would pay $50m for a posting fee but you never know. I would guess $35-45m for the posting fee, and then a deal that pays $10-12m for 5 or 6 years. In any event it's shaping up to be a high-risk, high-reward situation.
Huge thanks to Patrick for doing this Q&A with us. Remember to check out his site, npbtracker.com. It's got an incredible amount of info on everything to do with the NPB.
Darvish will draw substantial interest from many different teams if he gets posted to Major League Baseball. The Rangers are believed to be one of the frontrunners, and should be especially motivated if C.J. Wilson flees elsewhere. If Darvish signs here, expect a few things: The 25-year old fronting the Rangers' 2012 rotation, a significant boost in the Rangers' popularity from across the world... and an adjustment period. Even as good as Darvish is, he'd be seeing an entirely new level of competition. Don't be shocked if he struggles early. But the stuff and the track record is there, and if Yu Darvish pitches like he can, he could be a very successful major-league pitcher.