The Rangers are in contract negotiations with Yu Darvish, a move that could help transform a solid, young rotation into a long term powerhouse.
It's now been a few days since the Rangers placed the top bid in the Yu Darvish posting process. The jubilation over snagging such a promising, fascinating opportunity has had time to wear off a bit for fans, and the reality of another month-long wait for the Rangers to sign the Japanese pitcher (or not) is setting in. Since offseason player movement will be nearly complete by the time these 30 days are have passed, we can expect some sort of additional action from Texas - even if it isn't a race to sign Prince Fielder - in the mean time. We'll be busy holding our collective breath, though, hoping that Darvish is agreeable to living and playing in North Texas and that his expectations are realistic. The likelihood is that Darvish will sign, so let's spend some of this down time looking ahead a few months and then a few years to what life with Yu would be like.
WHAT YOU'RE GETTING
If you're reading this you've probably read just about everything that's been said and Youtube'd about Darvish in the past week, but let's take a look at a few of the more insightful and informative comments about the player to put him in perspective. We should have the mini-biogarphy down by now. Yu Darvishsefad is the son of an Iranian father and a Japanese mother who met in America and therefore have likely provided him with an advanced amount of international perspective. He married well known Japanese actress Saeko in 2007, and media scrutiny of the couple's relationship (they have two boys, by the way) and split would make American and British tabloids proud. He's an enormous star, compared to Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan - you name the iconic persona - in terms of his fame in Japan.
Even though he's only 25, Darvish has had several opportunities already to pitch in America. He was heavily scouted as a high school kid, and there has been speculation in each of the previous two offseasons that he and the Nippon-Ham Fighters could decide to cash in. They waited until he'd proven everything possible in Japanese baseball - and boy did he. Pitching in the same NPB Pacific league that Daisuke Matsuzaka had, his numbers eclipsed Dice-K's. He'll be a year younger than Matsuzaka was when he made the move, but the small Red Sox righty's 2006 numbers for the Seibu Lions were 186.1 IP, 138 H, 13 HR, 34 BB, 200 K in 25 starts, good for a 2.13 ERA.
Darvish has been producing ERA's in the ones since his age 20 season. In 2011 he posted 232 IP, 156 H, 5 HR, 36 BB, 276 K in 28 starts, good for a 1.44 ERA. While I wouldn't get too caught up in the ERAs, there are fairly significant differences here between the two stat lines. The most striking might be Darvish's impressive home run rate. Five homers allowed in 232 innings isn't completely unheard of (Hisashi Iwakuma allowed three in 201.2 a few years ago), but the difference between a home run allowed every 46.4 innings versus one every 14.3 is a big deal when we're projecting how these guys will handle MLB parks and more importantly MLB hitters. Darvish has frequently allowed single digit dingers while hovering around 200 innings in his young career. Matsuzaka's home run rate has gone up in Boston to roughly one every ten innings. That's not terrible, but if Darvish can translate his ability to keep the ball in the park in Arlington, he's likely to be quite successful.
The other notable numbers here are the walk and strikeout ratios. Matsuzaka has been a strikeout pitcher in Boston. His K totals, particularly in his first couple of seasons when he was healthy, have rivaled what he did in Japan. The startling problem for him has been control. He wouldn't have been considered a control artist by Japanese standards, but the his walks jumping to 4.4 per nine innings has been his major downfall here. The Rangers have to hope that Darvish's stuff and command hold up well enough that he doesn't have this problem. The stats would support the notion that he has a better chance to do avoid it. His 7.7 strikeouts to one walk ratio is meaningfully higher than Matsuzaka's 5.9 in his last season. For their entire careers Darvish's ratio was 3.8 to Matsuzaka's 2.7.
The prevailing opinion on Matsuzaka has been that the more dangerous MLB hitters have reduced him from a dominant pitcher to a nibbler. He was unable to have the success he was used to in the strikezone, so he began trying to do more business outside the zone, thus the huge jump in walks. This is pretty much the crux of being a pitcher, so out of all of the comments that I've read about Darvish, one really stood out to me. It came from Kevin Goldstein's survey of major league execs comparing Darvish with other top end major league starters.
Another American League scouting official insisted that it's what Darvish can do with the stuff that gives him the edge. "A lot of pitchers can get strikeouts outside of the zone," he explained. "When you can challenge hitters inside the zone and get swings and misses, that's what makes a frontline starter, and Darvish can do that."
That really gave me warm fuzzies. As the official said, the ability to consistently get swings and misses with strikes is one of a couple necessary components for an elite starting pitcher. If he can do that here, comparisons with virtually any other Japanese starter are apples to oranges. His psyche also appears to be unique among Japanese stars. He's been described many different ways, ranging from a great teammate and a team leader to a flaky prima donna. The consensus seems to be that he's supremely confident and driven, and if those things are true I'll be fine with his intangibles just as I was with CJ Wilson's.
What we really can't know is exactly how Darvish will adapt to the altered regimen of more frequent - and more overall - starts with lower pitch counts. I think it's reasonable to be optimistic, though, that his 6-5, 220 frame will aid him in adjusting better than some of the smaller, chunkier guys like Matsuzaka, who is 6-0 and has battled fitness issues. He's also stopped pitching over there at age 24, so while he was there for key years to a pitcher's long term arm health, his body chemistry should be fairly adaptable.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE ROTATION IN 2012
Here's what we know right now. If Darvish signs with the Rangers, they'll have seven viable rotation candidates:
- Darvish, who would likely sign a five-year deal that would put the Rangers' annual investment in him beyond $20 million. They could go six years, which, depending on how you account for it, would spread the impact of the posting fee thinner but increase the monetary risk even more. So, in terms of investment and control, you're looking at having Darvish through 2016 or 2017 on his first contract.
- Derek Holland, who is currently at just over two years of major league experience. That means that he would begin to get more expensive in 2013 but be under control through 2015. Various media reports suggest that Holland and the Rangers are discussing a five-year extension that would add cost certainty, give the Rangers an extra year of control through 2016, and provide Holland with his first really big paycheck.
- Neftali Feliz, who is in the same contractual shape as Holland. He'll be arbitration eligible after next season and under Rangers control through 2015.
- Alexi Ogando, who is at just over one year of service time. That means he'll be cheap in '12 and '13 and under control through '16.
- Matt Harrison, who is arbitration eligible for the first time and is under control through '14.
- Colby Lewis, who is on the club option year of one of the best free agent deals the Rangers have ever done. He'll make $3.25 million next season and be a free agent after that. (While we're on Lewis, Paul Swydan of Fangraphs had this great note: "Lewis is in the last year of his deal, and is priced at the modest sum of $3.25 million. That price tag, along with his durability - he is just one of 33 pitchers to accumulate at least 400 innings over the past two seasons - as well as the dearth of good starting pitching options left on the market would make him a desirable commodity.")
- Scott Feldman, who is likely also on the last year of his contract. The Rangers owe him $6.5 million next season and have a club option of $9.25 million for 2013 with a small ($600k) buyout. Unless he's traded in the mean time, it's likely that he'll be cut loose after the season.
That's five guys with 3+ years of club control and two who are in walk years. Unless they make a trade, the Rangers are almost certainly going to pick the five best starting fits and move the other two to the pen. The two most likely candidates for that are Ogando and Feldman, since Feliz has already been told that he's moving to the rotation and bumping him back to the pen in some kind of setup role would really mess with his head.
There has been a good deal of speculation over who could still be traded and whether the Rangers might still make a move for a Matt Garza or Gio Gonzalez (but no longer John Danks, who signed a long term extension Wednesday with the White Sox), with just about every incumbent member of the rotation tossed around. For my money, Harrison makes the most sense to include in a trade with prospects for an upgrade. He wouldn't fit in Oakland, but he would give a club like the Cubs a lefty they'll have for three years who has demonstrated the ability to pitch in Rangers Ballpark. That's pretty attractive, and the Rangers should be able to absorb his departure long term.
If a trade of that nature is made, it doesn't figure to include more than one of these starters. If we assume that Harrison will be in the rotation (and barring a trade I think he will be), a trade would only swap him out, and Ogando and Feldman would still head into spring training as the most likely candidates to strengthen a pen that currently includes Joe Nathan, Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Yoshinori Tateyama, Mark Lowe and will likely be bolstered with some kind of lefty.
While this all seems like surplus, it is important to remember that seasons like 2011 where Feldman and Dave Bush started five games and no one else outside of the starting five started a single game are incredibly rare, especially in Rangers history. Ogando's 29 starts were the fewest among the top five. Tommy Hunter was expected to be in or battle for a spot in the rotation in each of the past two years, but he's been injured in spring training. Holland, Harrison, Feldman and Ogando each have one full season of starting under their belts and Darvish and Feliz have none in MLB. One case of a sore spring arm is pretty likely, and pitching injuries are a reality in baseball.
WHAT ABOUT 2013 AND BEYOND?
Within a few hours of the announcement that the Rangers had won the bidding for Darvish my thoughts turned to the future. If we can dream for a moment, let's say that Darvish becomes what the Rangers expect. Holland and Harrison are still developing and what Feliz and Ogando will become over the next couple of years is pretty difficult to predict at the moment, but toss in Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez - two upper level starting prospects with a good deal of promise - and there is potential for a high end rotation to carry the organization through an era of several years. That's an exciting group for Rangers fans who have been able to count on disappointment, injury or trade of every promising pitching prospect in franchise history. Holland, Harrison, Ogando and Feliz have already been key members of division winners that made their way to the World Series, and the Rangers expect Darvish to be the lead horse.
Future years will likely pivot on what becomes of Feliz and Ogando. Perez and Ramirez are the names you'll hear other clubs ask about in trade rumors and are by far the two most likely prospects to have the ability to step into a playoff contender's rotation and compete. The Rangers have some promising arms at other levels, but Darvish, Holland, Harrison, Feliz, Ogando, Perez, Ramirez - those are the names likely to carry this young, gifted rotation through the next several years. A high percentage of young pitchers will always be destined to disappoint over time, but with Darvish this group could be an unprecedented group of young starters in this organization.