It appears that the free agent starting pitcher market will gain one more member. While C.J. Wilson appears to head the class currently, we’ve long heard that Japanese phenom Yu Darvish could go through the posting process and head stateside this winter. According to Kyodo News, via JapanBall.com, Darvish plans to ask his team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, to post him after his season ends early next month. A team source says that Nippon Ham will grant the request should Darvish officially make it. Darvish has since denied the report, but he has every reason to do so. Again, his season is not over, as the Fighters still have the Climax Series ahead of them, and perhaps the Japan Series.
At this point it’s difficult to determine exactly how interested the Yankees are in Darvish’s services. As Moshe Mandel wrote on Monday, it’s tough to believe what anyone says regarding Darvish. The blind posting system lends itself to misinformation campaigns. If the Yankees truly are interested, they have no reason to broadcast that fact. They’ll certainly put in a bid, even if it’s only to drive up the price by feigning interest. It’s the aggressiveness of the bid that’s in question.
Yesterday on The Yankee Analysts, David P of Yankees Source provided first-hand scouting information on Darvish. It’s worth the full read, since it reveals information we likely won’t see anywhere else. My two main takeaways: 1) Though he’s an established star in Japan, to an MLB team he’s really a top-tier prospect, and 2) he’s already answered a number of challenges in his career. Again, the entire article gets RAB’s highest level recommendation.
Now that you’re more familiar with Darvish himself, let’s place him in the context of the Yankees needs and resources. Obviously they’ll hunt for pitching this off-season. Even if they bring back CC Sabathia they could certainly use another arm atop their rotation. C.J. Wilson is the only other realistic possibility on the free agent market, and he’d likely cost the Yankees in the $100 million neighborhood (I’d still consider 5/90 the most likely case). He’ll also cost the Yankees a first-round draft pick in 2012, making for the second straight first rounder they’ll have lost. That’s usually a worthy sacrifice for a top-flight pitcher. But the Yankees might do better with Darvish.
For starters, the posting system provides the Yankees a huge advantage. That’s straight money, with no luxury tax or payroll implications attached. If they want to pull a Red Sox and plunk down a $50 million bid, they can do that with no additional penalty. As we saw with Daisuke Matsuzaka, the ensuing contract likely won’t come near the deal that Wilson will eventually sign. That means a lower overall payroll, which allows the Yankees more resources to fill out other roster spots. At this point we can loop back to David’s scouting report and see that there’s a chance that Darvish is straight better than Wilson. Baseball provides little in the way of guarantees. A smart gamble can make all the difference, and it appears that Darvish could be that smart gamble.
At the same time, a smart gamble is still a gamble. Darvish faces many challenges when coming to the US. All around the baseball world, from reporters to fans, I’ve seen the sentiment that the Kei Igawa experience has scared off the Yankees from Japanese pitchers. Few have had long-term success, and two of the most recent transitions, Matsuzaka and Igawa, have flopped badly. Even more recently, Kenshin Kawakami spent his second American baseball season in AA, while Koji Uehara had to make a bullpen transition. But at the same time, we don’t exactly have a long track record of Japanese pitchers to judge. Only 37 Japanese-born players have ever pitched an inning in the majors, and only 14 have topped even 200 career innings. Narrowing the field further, only six have made 100 or more career starts, and only one has made more than 200 starts.
Part of the narrative explaining Japanese pitchers’ relative lack of success is the wholesale changes they face when coming to the States. Culture shock is but one aspect. A change in routine might be more important. Japanese pitchers throw once a week and spend their days training for that routine. It takes a complete change in routine and training regiment to pitch on the MLB five-day schedule. Many pitchers cannot make that adjustment — Matsuzaka, reportedly, would not change his routine despite the different environment. But I refer to the second takeaway from David’s post. Darvish has already answered a number of challenges in his career. It gives me more faith that he can successfully transition to MLB.
The Yankees’ most abundant asset is their capital. Their win-now, win-always management style means draft picks become scarce. That style can also lead to an out-of-hand payroll. With Darvish the Yankees have a perfect opportunity. They can add a potential star — a young potential star — using only their most abundant resource. They also avoid payroll bloat, since Darvish’s contract figures to come in much lower than Wilson’s. There are risks involved, for sure. While there are indications that Darvish can handle the transition, there is no guarantee. There’s also no guarantee that his stuff plays up in the majors. But there are no guarantees with Wilson, either. It’s not an either-or, in that the Yankees can decline to pursue both. But if they do want to add a top-flight starter to the rotation, Darvish could be the man. He fits their M.O. perfectly.