An Informed Opinion of Yu Darvish

(Junko Kimura/Getty Images)

Yu Darvish has been and will continue to be a hot topic for at least another week, until we learn which MLB team placed the highest bid for his negotiating rights. It could very well be the Yankees since they have the most money and the need in the rotation, but if you believe what they’ve been saying the last few days, they might not even make a bid at all. I have a hard time believing that, but I guess stranger things have happened.

Meanwhile, until we find out who wins the bid, we’re left debating why the Yankees should or shouldn’t pursue Darvish. We all have our own opinions, but for the most part we’re lacking information. We just don’t know much about the guy, just what we’ve ready over the last year or two. I’m not sure many of us have seen him pitch regularly, and it’s tough to have an informed opinion that way. In an effort to shed some light on Darvish, I’m bringing in Patrick Newman of the indispensable NPB Tracker for some help since he’s actually seen the guy pitch pretty regularly over the last few years.

I met Patrick for the first (and only) time this part March, while in Arizona catching some Spring Training games. We chatted about Darvish and some other players, but what stuck with me most was the list of flaws Patrick rattled off about Japan’s best pitcher. One thing I remembered was him saying that Darvish would get away with some pitches in Japan that MLB hitters wouldn’t let him forget, but otherwise I couldn’t remember much of the conversation. I asked him to repeat that list of flaws to share with the RAB faithful, and he ended up writing nearly 450 words about Darvish. Here are those 450-ish words, unabridged…

First of all, you have a really good memory.

My assessment of Darvish was based on what I saw last season (2010). My big concerns were that he seemed to go to his vertical slider (which is really more like a power curve) quite a bit, and my perception was that he was leaving a lot of them hanging over the middle of the plate. NPB hitters seemed to foul those pitches back a lot of the time, and he wouldn’t get away with those types against MLB hitters. Also last year, he showed a lot of 90-92 mph fastballs, and would top out around 95.

This season he was a lot better. The most obvious difference was his fastball velocity, which was more consistently around 94 and touched 97 on his best days. His cutter seemed to take a step forward this year, giving him three pitches above 90 mph with movement (2-seamer, 4-seamer, cutter). I think the velocity gains are real, as he added 10 kg of strength to his frame last offseason. I didn’t really see the same mistakes with his slider this year, he actually looked like he was using all his stuff effectively. There would be times when decent hitters would start to catch up and foul off his harder stuff, and he’d come right back with a slow curve or softer slider, and the hitter would be helpless. So he looked better overall this year, and my concerns about his mistake pitches and velocity are mostly gone. He’ll certainly still make the odd mistake, as he’s not a robot, but I’m more optimistic about him than I have been of anyone in the past.

Most of these are eyeball-level observations, drawn from memory of the games I watched during the season. So grains of salt apply. Here’s some data for reference and additional context:

This doesn’t mean that Darvish is without question marks. All the usual stuff applies — five-day rotation, different ball, different mound, facing batters that can actually hit home runs, being prepared mentally, coping with travel, etc. I have the impression that Nippon Ham has really let Darvish do his own thing — he tends to tweak his delivery a lot, more than any other pitcher I can think of offhand. Who knows if an MLB pitching coach is going to be cool with that?¬†Also keep in mind that Darvish is going to have more pressure and attention than possibly any player that has preceded him. Ichiro was stalked relentlessly by the Japanese media when he joined the Mariners, but I don’t think the Americans necessarily expected much from him. American fans have been anticipating Darvish for years, so he’ll have the Japanese insanity and the American expectations to live up to. I think he will be successful though, and I hope he is.

I’m glad Patrick reminded us that Darvish isn’t a robot, I feel like we often get too caught up in expecting players — especially pitchers — to be perfect all the time. Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing is fond of saying that it’s not easy to throw a strike, and I think we often forget that. Anyway, it’s good to see that I wasn’t just making up all that stuff about Darvish getting away with mistake pitches in Japan, and it’s also good to see that he’s basically as good as ever at the moment. It would be hard for him to pick a better time to come to MLB.

The one thing that I think is important to point out here is that Darvish isn’t Daisuke Matsuzaka, the last mega-hyped pitcher to come out of Japan. Dice-K’s best season with the Seibu Lions was probably 2005, when he pitched to a 2.30 ERA with 226 strikeouts in 215 IP (9.46 K/9). You can make a case that his 2006 season was better — 2.13 ERA with 200 K in 186.1 IP (9.66 K/9) — but I don’t think it’s worth the argument. Now compare that Darvish, who over the last five seasons has averaged a 1.72 ERA with 217 strikeouts in 205 IP (9.53 K/9) for the Nippon Ham Fighters. Dice-K’s best season with the Lions would probably be Darvish’s sixth best season with the Fighters.

Anyway, all we can do now is wait, wait to see if the Yankees placed a bid and wait to see who wins the right to talk to the guy. Darvish certain passes the eye test as a 6-foot-5, 220 lb. right-hander that can dial his fastball up to 97 with an assortment of breaking balls to use when ahead in the count, but there’s always going to be that element of the unknown until he gets on the bump for an MLB team.

The second worst contract in baseball history

Albert Pujols signed the second worst contract in baseball history last week, and he did it all without meeting with a team he thought was based in Los Angeles.

OK. OK. Perhaps I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but bear with me. Right now, Alex Rodriguez‘s 10-year, $275-million contract, signed when he was heading into his age 32 season, is generally considered to be one of the worst in baseball history. Four years into the deal, A-Rod has struggled to stay healthy, averaging just 124 games per season, while hitting .284/.375/.521. It’s an impressive slash line, but that is a far cry from the .306/.389/.578 line he put up beforehand.

To make matters worse, as we know, A-Rod’s world was rocked by scandal a few months after signing the deal when revelation of past steroid use became public. All of a sudden, the historic milestone clauses that could push A-Rod’s contract value over the $300 million mark became onerous. A-Rod gets paid no matter what, but a tainted home run race won’t draw as much money to the Yanks’ coffers as it otherwise would have.

A-Rod, who turned 36 this past July, is under contract for six more years and will earn another $143 million from the Yanks. It’s highly doubtful he’ll be worth it even if he can stay healthy enough to regain some semblance of his All Star production levels. Now, the Yanks could do worse than have A-Rod under contract for a while, but they were bidding against themselves in the winter of 2007 when A-Rod opted out. He walked away richer, and even before the ink dried on that contract, we knew a contract covering A-Rod’s age 32-41 seasons would not look pretty.

Enter the Angels. Or the Marlins. Or even the Cardinals. Albert Pujols is a great baseball player. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer with a career 1.037 OPS, 445 home runs, three MVP awards and two World Series rings. He’s also going to be 32 when the 2012 season opens and just signed a contract for $254 million covering his age 32-41 seasons. With an injury-plagued past, he’s coming off a year in which he hit only .299/.366/.541. For him, that’s a down year, and at his age, it’s not unreasonable to expect a slow and steady decline.

Of course, just like A-Rod in decline is still a very good player, so too is Albert Pujols. He makes the offensively-challenged Angels instantly better in the short term. In the long term, I’m glad the Yanks haven’t just forked over $254 million in guaranteed dollars to a first baseman. At least A-Rod played a premium position.

So all of these dollars got me thinking: If A-Rod’s deal is generally considered one of the worst in baseball, can’t we call Pujols’ contract the second worst? He’s a bit better offensively than A-Rod was at the same point in his career, but he plays an easier position. He’s signed for the same time period and is likely getting paid by the Angels for what he’s already done in his career — for another team, to boot — than what he will do going forward.

But who cares? I’m looking forward to seeing the Angels sink $25 million in 37-year-old Albert Pujols in a few years. There’s a larger concern though. Baseball’s system is now set up to reward the past. With new CBA, draft pick compensation is going to be tightly controlled, and the international free agency system will be limited as well. Free agency, then, will reign supreme, and teams will have to overpay for top talent. The Yanks are seeing that now as pitchers who aren’t rotation aces are getting paid as such, and teams are demanding the stars and the moon in trades for younger arms.

So the Yanks will spend cautiously and, some might say, wisely as free agent dollars explode. That’s the system the owners and players association have crafted to protect, on the one hand, current MLBPA members and, on the other, smaller market teams. At least the Yanks aren’t alone in signing a great player to an absurd contract though. For the next ten years, they have company.

It’s official, Freddy Garcia’s back

Monday: Via The NY Post, we have a breakdown of Garcia’s incentives. He’ll make an additional $250k each for his 25th, 27th, 29th, and 30th starts, then $275k for his 31st start and $300k for his 32nd start. Freddy only made 25 starts in 2011, in part because the Yankees avoided using him like the plague back in April. Things figure to be different this time around.

In other news, Marc Carig reports that Curtis has cleared waivers and been outrighted to Triple-A Scranton. He remains with the organization, but is no longer on the 40-man roster. Part of me wondered if some NL team would grab him as a lefty hitting fifth outfielder, but nope. The shoulder injury was too much of a red flag, I guess.

Friday: A little more than two weeks after agreeing to a new deal, Freddy Garcia is officially back in pinstripes. Sweaty Freddy signed his one-year contract this morning, which Bryan Hoch says is worth $4M guaranteed plus another $1.575M in incentives based on games started.

To make room on the 40-man roster, the Yankees have designated Colin Curtis for assignment. The 26-year-old outfielder missed the entire 2011 season after suffering a shoulder injury in Spring Training, though he’s hitting .300/.391/.450 in winter ball so far (23 games). Curtis figured to be the team’s extra outfielder in Triple-A this year since Greg Golson has been released and both Justin Maxwell and Chris Dickerson are out of options. There’s a chance he’ll get claimed off waivers, but the shoulder injury is working in the Yankees’ favor.

Open Thread: Jose Veras

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The last two Open Threads have focused on bullpen arms, and tonight we’re going to make it three in a row. First came scrap heap pickup Brian Bruney, then came big money free agent signing Mike Stanton, and now we’re diving back into the scrap heap for Jose Veras. The Yankees signed Veras to a minor league deal on this date in 2005, about two months after the Rangers released him.

Veras, 25 at the time, was the prototypical bullpen flier. He threw very hard but struggled with his command, so he’d never gotten a chance in the big leagues. After pitching very well as Triple-A Columbus’ closer early in 2006 (2.41 ERA with 10.3 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in 59.2 IP), the Yankees called him up for his first taste of the show that August. He got into a dozen games, striking out six and walking five in 11 forgettable innings. Veras did pretty much the same thing the next year, but he got his big break in 2008.

After starting the year with Triple-A Scranton, the Yankees called him up for good in early-May. Veras was striking out a ton of batters and keeping the walks in check, allowing him to climb up Joe Girardi‘s bullpen pecking order. By the end of the season he was getting regular seventh and eighth inning work thanks to his 9.8 K/9 and 4.5 BB/9 in 57.2 IP. Part of the Opening Day roster in 2009, Veras allowed runs in eight of his first 13 appearances. He’s lost his late-inning job and was working mop-up duty when the team finally designated him for assignment in mid- June.

Veras always had crazy nasty stuff, doing things like this in between his bouts of wildness. His overall body of work in New York wasn’t anything special — 4.43 ERA with 8.2 K/9 and 4.8 BB/9 in 103.2 IP — and the Indians snatched him up after the Yankees cut him loose. He’s since moved on to the Marlins and Pirates, having an okay season in Florida in 2010 (3.75 ERA with 10.1 K/9 and 5.4 BB/9 in 48 IP) and a kinda sorta breakout year in Pittsburgh in 2011 (3.80 ERA with 10.0 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9). Now 31 years old, Veras had that one nice year for the Yankees, which is pretty much all you can ask for from these scrap heap types.

Update: How about that, Veras was traded to the Brewers for Casey McGehee tonight. Now the guy has two reasons to celebrate December 12th.

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Here is tonight’s open thread. The Rams and Seahawks are your incredibly yucky Monday Night Football game (8:30pm ET on ESPN), and the Devils are playing. That’s pretty much it, but talk about anything you like here.

No surprises here: Yankees will not non-tender anyone

Today is the deadline for teams to offer contracts to their players with less than six years of service time, a.k.a. the non-tender deadline. A new batch of free agents will be on the market tomorrow, just don’t expect it to be anyone overly exciting. Here’s a list of those who could be non-tendered today, and here’s a way to keep track of all the non-tender action.

Anyway, the Yankees will tender contracts to all of their eligible players today according to Dan Barbarisi, which is completely expected. None of their six arbitration-eligible players (David Robertson, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, Russell Martin, and Brett Gardner) will be grossly overpaid next year, plus there is no obvious reason for them to cut any of their pre-arbitration players loose. Nothing groundbreaking here, just some housekeeping.

Resizing the market for Danks and Gonzalez

As the Yankees scour the market for upgrades to the starting rotation, two names appear more frequently than the rest: John Danks and Gio Gonzalez. Both are reportedly available, and both fit well into the Yankees rotation. The major obstacle, as is the case in all trade negotiations, is the price. The White Sox reportedly want Jesus Montero and Manny Banuelos for Danks, and the A’s want young, high-end outfielders for Gonzalez. The Yankees don’t want to surrender one of Montero and Banuelos for Danks, and they don’t have young, high-end outfielders to trade for Gonzalez. This might seemingly rule them out on both, but a recent trade might have changed the market a bit.

This weekend the A’s moved one pitcher out of their rotation, sending Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks. In return they received prospects Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill, and Ryan Cook. Despite the void Cahill leaves in the A’s rotation, it’s reported that they’ll continue listening to offers for Gonzalez. The equation has changed a bit, given the return they got for Cahill. While that in some ways might benefit the Yankees’ pursuit of Gonzalez, or even Danks, it hurts it in other ways.

The A’s Needs

As Mike mentioned last week, the A’s desire for young, high-end outfielders complicates things for the Yanks from the get-go. They really have none in the high levels of the system. If the A’s wouldn’t settle for other high-end prospects, the Yankees would need a third team to facilitate a trade. That adds another level of complexity, which decreases the chances of a deal happening. That is, the more moving parts the harder it is to find a match that works for everyone.

The A’s did acquire an outfielder in the Cahill deal, but he’s not exactly high-end or even that young. Cowgill turns 26 in May, and his minor league track record isn’t overly impressive. He did hit .354/.430/.554 last season, but that was as a 25-year-old in the hitters’ haven known as the Pacific Coast League. My favorite example to put the PCL in perspective: Bubba Crosby hit .361/.410/.635 in the PCL before the Yankees acquired him in 2003. That is, he’s more of a throw-in than anything. That leaves the A’s still seeking outfielders, which continues to hurt the Yankees’ chances of acquiring Gonzalez.

Comparing Cahill and Gonzalez

Even though the the Yankees, as far as we know, were never in on Cahill, we can still look to this deal as a guide. First, let’s take a look at Gonzalez and Cahill. Both have over 500 major league innings, and they have nearly identical ERAs in that span (3.93 for Gonzalez, 3.91 for Cahill). Yet this is where their similarities end. They’re quite different pitchers in style, in age, and in contract.

Cahill is more of a ground ball guy, with a 53.3 percent career ground ball rate. He doesn’t strike out many, though he did in the minors and his numbers are rising. There’s still some projectability with Cahill, since he’ll turn just 24 years old in March. At the same time, he’s already locked up through 2015 at least, for a total of $30.5 million. That includes his first year of free agency eligibility for $12 million, and then two options, for $13 and $13.5 million, after that. That gets him through his age-29 season for $56.2 million, with the option to cut it short at $30.5 million if he gets hurt. It is, in other words, an incredibly team-friendly deal.

Gonzalez is more of a strikeout guy, fanning 8.59 per nine in his major league career. He also generates a decent number of ground balls, a 47.5 percent career rate. Yet when it comes to age and contract he’s a bit less valuable than Cahill. He just turned 26, and is a Super Two this off-season, meaning he’ll go through the arbitration process four times. While that can be a blessing in some cases, for a team acquiring him it can be a burden. MLB Trade Rumors estimates Gonzalez’s first-year arbitration number at $3.6 million, which is right in line with Cahill’s salary. But unlike Cahill’s salary, Gonzalez’s is not controlled. With quality performance she could perhaps beat the numbers on Cahill for the following three years: $5.5, $7.7, and $12 million.

To a team such as the Yankees this might not matter, but to other teams it does. That is to say that Cahill is quite a bit more valuable than Gonzalez. The cost-controlled aspect helps, as does Cahill’s age. For $56.2 million a team potentially gets him for his best seasons. Look at it this way, then. On Saturday Mike looked at a comparable Yankees package for Cahill. It included Manny Banuelos, Brandon Laird, and George Kontos. If that’s what the A’s got for Cahill, more or less, then they can’t really expect that for Gonzalez. Perhaps, then, there is a deal to be made here after all.

(Though, again, the A’s desire for, and the Yankees lack of, outfield prospects could mean there’s no match between them.)

Back to Danks

With the A’s needs hindering their chances of trading Gonzalez to the Yankees, our attention turns back to Danks. In his most recent update, CBS’s Jon Heyman notes an amended asking price: two of Banuelos, Montero, and Dellin Betances. Of course, this hardly changes things from before. It merely allows the Yankees to swap Betances for one of Montero or Banuelos. As before, there is zero doubt that the Yankees have rejected this idea out of hand. But that doesn’t mean the price will always remain this high.

The Cahill trade does give us some idea of the trade market, though it isn’t a precise barometer. That is, the White Sox aren’t necessarily influenced by Oakland’s return for Cahill. It does, however, set a bit of precedent. The White Sox asking price for Danks is surely better than what the A’s got for Cahill. If the Yankees wanted to add a starter and were willing to pay that price, why wouldn’t they have just turned to Oakland and their younger, more valuable starter?

As mentioned last week, the Yankees won’t give up Montero or Banuelos in a trade for Danks. The Cahill trade just reinforces that. The A’s got one blue chip pitching prospect back for their proven, young, and cheap starter. The White Sox cannot expect anything remotely comparable for their relatively expensive starter who hits free agency after the 2012 season. Even Betances might seem a stretch. After all, he was just 10 spots behind Parker in the 2011 Baseball America Top 100, and they had comparable seasons (both ending in the bigs).

Where this leaves the Yankees

This is where Brian Cashman‘s discretion comes into play. He talks about how the rotation doesn’t need help, or only needs help at the back end. While it’s nice to speak so highly of his players, to stick with the current guys is a difficult proposition. It assumes a rebound from Phil Hughes and that Freddy Garcia can continue fooling opponents with an array of junk. The Yankees would certainly do well to add a starter by any means possible.

Chances are, however, that not much will happen this week. Bids on Yu Darvish are due on Wednesday, and we won’t learn the winner until Sunday or Monday. The Yankees likely won’t make a move until they know where they stand on Darvish. After that, they’ll likely refocus on Hiroki Kuroda, who is reportedly seeking a one-year deal for $12 or $13 million. After that, Danks and Gonzalez become possibilities again. But given their current asking prices, it’s not hard to understand why they might have moved down the priority list for the moment.

Repeating History With Yu Darvish

(Photo Credit: Darvish via Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images, Johan via AP)

After much speculation and anticipation, the Nippon Ham Fighters officially posted Yu Darvish late last week. MLB clubs have until 5pm ET this Wednesday to submit their bid for the 25-year-old right-hander, and so far the Yankees have been playing coy. Team officials “sounded pessimistic about making a significant posting bid, if they submit one at all” according to Joel Sherman, but this is exactly how Brian Cashman has operated the last few years. It’s hard to take these claims seriously.

Four offseasons ago, the Yankees were in a similar position to the one they are in right now: in need of pitching with an ace-caliber starter in the prime of his career to be had. The Twins were openly shopping Johan Santana — just 28 years old and coming off one of the most dominant four-year stretches in recent baseball history — because he was under contract for just one more season and they couldn’t afford to sign him long-term. Only a few clubs had the prospects to put together a trade package and the financial wherewithal to sign him to a huge contract extension, and the Yankees were one of those teams.

Cashman did the song and dance as trade rumors swirled for a while, but ultimately he and the Yankees passed on Santana. They rolled the dice with Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy in 2008, an experiment that was a disaster and ultimately contributed to the team missing the playoffs for the first time in a decade and a half. Passing on Johan was just one piece of Cashman’s grand rotation plan though, a plan that included pursuing CC Sabathia as a free agent during the 2008-2009 offseason. The consequences were pretty severe in 2008, at least around these parts, but the plan worked masterfully. The Yankees signed Sabathia — another left-handed ace in his prime, but one without as many question marks as Santana — for nothing but money and watched him lead them to the 2009 World Championship. This offseason, Cashman and the Yankees could be pulling the same trick again.

(Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

In Darvish, teams have a chance to acquire someone purported to be an ace but with very real questions about his game. Santana’s problem was his sudden spike in homerun rate and reports an elbow issue that caused him to lose some velocity and reduce the usage of his slider. He was proven in MLB and the AL though, which is the question with Darvish. We don’t know how he’ll transition to the States, and the track record of Japanese starters over here isn’t very good beyond Hiroki Kuroda. The Yankees would have had to pay twice for Johan (once in prospects then once in a huge contract extension), but Darvish is available for only money (including a huge up front posting free payment).

Playing the role of Sabathia this time around is next offseason’s crop of free agent pitchers, which includes Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, John Danks, Matt Cain, Jeremy Guthrie, Francisco Liriano, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez, and Shaun Marcum. Some are bonafide stars, some are mid-rotation workhorses, some are risky high-upside plays. Some of those guys will surely sign extensions over the next ten months, but the sheer volume of quality pitchers leads me to believe that at least some of them will be available next offseason. By not paying big bucks for Darvish and his uncertainty now, the Yankees could be gearing up for a run at one of those arms next winter, guys with track records in MLB and generally safer bets.

What Cashman did four winters ago — putting all his eggs in the Sabathia basket — was incredibly risky in many ways, but there isn’t that much risk this time around. For one, he already has CC anchoring his rotation, so there isn’t that need for someone to place atop the rotation. They’re just looking for someone to put between Sabathia and ahead of everyone else. Secondly, Sabathia was The Guy after the 2008 season, the best pitchers on the market after him were A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe, nice pitchers (at the time) but hardly whom you’d consider rotation stalwarts. This time around the options are plentiful, even if a few of those guys sign extensions like I said.

No one asked me, but I would like to see the Yankees sign Darvish because it’s not often a 25-year-old with his pedigree comes along for nothing more than money. Then again, I could also see them stand pat or acquire someone like Kuroda or John Danks for 2012 with an eye towards going nuts on pitching next winter. Not saying I necessarily agree with it, but I could see them going that route. There wouldn’t be as much risk as there was four years ago, but the thought process is basically the same. It’s already worked once, but the question is can it work again?