Yu Darvish and the potential chain reaction.
He went 18-6, 1.44 in 28 starts for the Fighters in 2011, and has averaged a 15-6, 1.99 record in his six full Japan Pacific League seasons. He's won league MVP honors twice, first at age 20.
He led the league this year in strikeouts (276), posting a career high in strikeouts per nine innings (10.7) and a career low in walks per nine (1.4). In 232 innings of work, he was taken deep all of five times, racking up a 57 percent groundball rate.
The level of competition and the track record of those who have emigrated to the States before him notwithstanding, what Yu Darvish has accomplished in Japan isn't a Kevin Mench NCAA home run title or Shawn Gallagher high school hit streak record, and chances are extremely good that he's not Hideki Irabu or Kei Igawa.
This isn't about statistical supremacy and the question of the extent to which a set of Nippon Professional Baseball numbers will translate to the Major Leagues. It's about scouting, something that Texas and Toronto apparently devoted as much time and expense to as any club in the case of Darvish, who attracted the highest sealed posting bid ever submitted and the runner-up bid from those same two organizations.
And it's about a pitcher who, in Japan, has been a physical anomaly, and is coming off a seven-year run of dominance unlike any other before him, and he's only Derek Holland's age.
There's a large spectrum of results when it comes to Japanese pitchers coming to the Major Leagues, with Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hiroki Kuroda on one end and Irabu and Igawa on the other. The commitment Texas is making on Darvish -- $51.7 million to Nippon Ham plus whatever is agreed upon with Darvish himself over the next four weeks -- is a clear indication that the Rangers expect Darvish to redefine the top end of the spectrum altogether.
Will he? I don't know. But the easy part is the trust in the organization, both in the exhaustive evaluation that led to this and what the next however-many years will be and, just as importantly, in this relatively new and repeatedly demonstrated resolve: that when the Rangers zero in on a player they want, ownership is prepared and determined to go get the deal done. That comes in the form of a record-breaking bid for a Japanese pitcher, and in the form of spending on Colby Lewis and Leonys Martin and Ronald Guzman and Nomar Mazara and on the scouting department building the dossier on these players, a relentless, methodical process that never stops moving forward.
But spending on scouting isn't enough. Spending on the right scouts, the ones who work hardest and see best, is critical, and it's hard to dispute these days that Texas has one of the elite scouting operations going.
It's that commitment and foundation-building by ownership and by Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan, at the front of a franchise that "do[es] things how they're supposed to be done" (Jeff Passan, Yahoo! Sports), that turns minor league wealth into Cliff Lee and Mike Adams, that turns scouting recommendations into Lewis and Martin and Guzman and Mazara, that gives me faith that what they see in Darvish takes him out of the Nomo-Matsuzaka-Kuroda conversation and puts him in a different one altogether.
"For most insiders polled, the choke point for just how good Yu Darvish would be occurred somewhere between Matt Garza and Zack Greinke, although a majority still preferred the Japanese import. It's important to note that even the reservations about Darvish had little to do with his talent, and everything to do with the adjustments he'll need to make, from working on shorter rest than he has in Japan, to dealing with far more dangerous hitters, to a new strike zone. Still, reports from professional evaluators and the posting price tell you Darvish was the best pitcher available this winter. While he was priced beyond many teams’ reach, the industry generally believes the righty will be worth the heavy price tag."
No lefthanders were included in the discussion, but for what it's worth, Goldstein answered the following on Twitter:
Q: C.J. Wilson at 77 million or Yu at 100+ million -- who would you take?
Q: What if they were both 25?
If A.J. Preller and Don Welke and Josh Boyd and Jim Colborn and Joe Furukawa -- all of whom were instrumental in the decision to sign Lewis -- believe Darvish is worth stepping out on, as a pitcher and as a competitor and as a person and as an athlete capable of making adjustments he's never had to make before, that he's the Dirk Nowitzki to Nomo's Detlef Schrempf, then I have a hard time getting too worried about whether this hill will be too much for him to climb.
And here's something else Texas is accomplishing with the Darvish move. When the Rangers sign him by January 18, they will have invested tons of cash, but no top prospects (Garza, Gio Gonzalez) and no draft picks (the Angels and Wilson). Rather than stripping the club of key assets, adding Darvish creates a fascinating opportunity that is sort of new for this Rangers regime.
There have been key young players traded (Justin Smoak, Robbie Erlin, Blake Beavan, Joe Wieland, Josh Lueke) in situations where the "yes" column favoring the deal had as one factor the system's depth. Mitch Moreland made trading Smoak more palatable than he would have been otherwise. Erlin was a step behind Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez in terms of wave progression, a step ahead of Robbie Ross and Cody Buckel. Beavan and Wieland, like Tommy Hunter, were viewed as slam dunk big leaguers who profiled more toward the back of the rotation than the front. Lueke was one of a load of hard-throwing righthanders in the system suited best for bullpen work.
Texas knew every one of those prospects was in line to get to the big leagues and produce. But as we've said before, you can get away with trading Adrian Gonzalez or John Danks or Mike Olt or Tanner Scheppers as long as you trade him well -- and it's also a lot easier to pull the trigger when you're not depleting your depth at any given position.
Olt has led that type of discussion for a couple months now, as a high-profile, near-ready, coveted third base prospect on a club whose elite third baseman is locked in for four or five more years. But the Darvish development adds another layer to the discussion, and this one goes right to the top.
Tyler Chatwood brought the Angels a frontline catcher in Chris Iannetta.
Mat Latos brought the Reds a package including Edinson Volquez, Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, and Brad Boxberger.
Look at the prospects that Oakland thinks it's entitled to for Gio Gonzalez (Olt-Perez, Jesus Montero-Manny Banuelos, Brad Peacock-Derek Norris, Wil Myers, Jacob Turner-Nick Castellanos, etc.).
Alexi Ogando and Matt Harrison are not worth what Latos or Gonzalez is. But they sure ought to have more value in trade than Chatwood, despite his age.
When Darvish signs, he and Lewis* and Holland and Neftali Feliz are locks, health assumed, to man the Rangers' season-opening rotation. That leaves one spot for Ogando and Harrison, with Scott Feldman as insurance, and Ramirez and Perez now on the roster and getting closer to factoring in. (And I'd still bet on another Dave Bush type signed and brought to camp on a Round Rock contract.)
[* Quick aside on Lewis: He and Darvish faced off once in Japan, on June 4, 2008, when he was 28 and Darvish was 21: Lewis won the 3-2 contest, giving up two runs on six hits and no walks in eight innings, fanning 13. Darvish went all nine and gave up three runs on six hits and two walks, striking out seven. Hat tip to Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker for digging that up.
Quality depth creates quality opportunities. Do you bolster the bullpen further by repurposing Ogando or Harrison to relief roles? Or do you consider trading one, addressing a need spot on the big club or further strengthening the top tier of the farm system (setting things up further for more impact moves in July and next winter)?
And if you trade prospects for Andrew Bailey, the surplus is even crazier. (For another time: How strong a position would Texas be in if Joe Nathan settles in and Texas has Bailey, under club control through 2014, on the trade market next winter?)
But as for Ogando and Harrison and what to do with them, it's a decision that won't be made between now and Darvish's mid-January signature, to be sure. Still, it's easy to imagine discussions with other clubs developing right now, laying groundwork for possible opportunities with teams looking for rotation help as the free agent market dries up and the trade market continues to get defined at a costly level.
Earlier this month Texas lost its number one starter. Now, or at least by January 18 (it would be crazy cool for Darvish to sign by the time the Awards Show and FanFest take place on the weekend of January 12-15, but I'm not optimistic), the Rangers not only will have replaced him (in their estimation) but also, in the process, will have actually created a surplus by not having to move another starting pitcher, either from the rotation or from Round Rock, to get him.
It would have been easy to bring a World Series roster back, virtually intact. There wouldn't have been much media complaint or season ticket backlash. That would have been easy. This is riskier.
So was trading a developmentally resurgent Volquez for the wildly risky Josh Hamilton.
This may not be the better course to take. But it could be a historically great one, and the Rangers are banking not only on that upside but also on the likelihood that this is the way to make a very good baseball team a better one, and for a longer time.
I'm not qualified to look at Darvish's four-seamer or his two-seamer with downward armside run or his cutter or his slider or his loopy curve, with a differently sized baseball and on a different rotation schedule and against inferior hitters, and evaluate what that translates to when the 6'5" righty trots out to the mound in Rangers Ballpark with a "T" on his cap and an "11" on his back (should Scott Coolbaugh, who once played in Japan, be so kind as to relinquish the number). But I can read the assessments of those who are so qualified, and I can watch video of his spectacular playoff start eight weeks ago
and get my imagination revved up plenty.
But what fires me up more is the reality that the Rangers' preeminent scouting group, with boots on the ground, decided that Darvish was the pitcher to target this winter, and that Rangers ownership stepped up, dead set on making sure this wasn't an opportunity missed. As Maury Brown noted over at Baseball Prospectus
, the organization's decision to hire Joe Januszewski from the Red Sox in January and name him Executive Vice President of Business Partnerships and Development may have been a key step in setting things up to build international sponsorship opportunities -- as Januszewski (who worked for the Rangers in the late '90s) did with the Red Sox when they signed Matsuzaka. Signing Yoshinori Tateyama, whose 2011 media guide bio didn't note that he had been with Nippon Ham for Darvish's entire career but whose 2012 media guide entry surely will, was surely premeditated and more than just about finding another funky right-armed slot to add to the bullpen mix.
But there's no bigger player in this process than the ownership group that brought Januszewski back to Texas, or the front office that put this scouting group together to find Tateyama and hundreds of other players that make this franchise one of baseball's most formidable right now, and if this latest development, to bring aboard the pitcher that Goldstein calls "a bigger star in Japan than any athlete in the United States" but who is, more importantly, evaluated to be one of the best pitchers in the world, creates opportunities to take advantage of a robust trade market for controllable starting pitchers -- or to simply give the bullpen a significant boost?
Then I'm confident that we have the right baseball operations group running our baseball team to weigh and convert on those opportunities, with the type of aggressive and clever execution that we have continually mounting examples of from its world-class team of scouts.