(Yu Darvish, with the Nippon Ham Fighters, shown exiting a ballpark in 2009 wearing a protective mask during a swine flu scare. Photo by Associated Press).
The latest word coming from Japan is that pitching sensation Yu Darvish will post this offseason, making him eligible to sign with a major-league team. The posting process, which allows a player to circumvent free agency, is the method by which the Mariners landed Ichiro, and the Red Sox got Daisuke Matsuzaka. It’s a two-pronged process — first, a major-league team has to put in the highest bid just to win negotiating rights, and then they have to reach contract agreement with the player. To land Daisuke, for instance, the Red Sox paid $51 million to the Seibu Lions to out-bid other teams — including the Yankees and Rangers — for the negotiating rights, then signed him to a $52-million contract over six years. I gave a detailed explanation of the process when Matsuzaka posted, and those guidelines will still be apt if and when Darvish posts.
It seems as though the Mariners are inevitably linked, at some point, to virtually every prominent player who comes over from Japan, for obvious reasons — their principal owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi, is Japanese. Yet in all the years that Yamauchi has been in that position (since 1992), they have signed just three Japanese players — Ichiro, of course; closer Kazuhiro Sasaki; and catcher Kenji Johjima. There was also reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa, signed as a free agent prior to the 2004 season, but he had already established himself with the Angels. I view that more as a pure baseball move involving a pitcher who happened to be Japanese. Mac Suzuki was signed as an amateur player in 1993, but his career fizzled quickly. Masao Kida passed through for eight games in 2004-05, but that was at a time when a lot of down-on-their-luck pitchers passed through, and he was just another in a long line.
The point is that the Mariners have not become the haven for Japanese players that was predicted by some. Darvish is a player that every team in baseball is going to have to think about, because he might be the best pitcher yet to come out of Japan. The numbers are quite impressive, and so are the scouting reports I’ve read. I’ve seen him in person during the World Baseball Classic, and he seems to be the real thing. But you’ll recall that Matsuzake and his “gyroball” were supposed to be a sensation, and after two strong seasons with the Red Sox — particularly 2008, when he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA — Dice-K has hit very hard times. He’s a combined 16-15 with a 5.03 ERA over the past three years, and is coming off Tommy John surgery in June. The Red Sox would love to make the final year of his contract in 2012, at $10 million, disappear, but they’ll probably have to eat it. The track record of Japanese pitchers is not great, particularly over the long haul.
Darvish appears to have a lot of charisma. Here is a blog post I wrote about him during the last World Baseball Classic, in which I noted a local angle unearthed in an ESPN.com article by Jim Caple:
Darvish’s father, Farsad, is Iranian. His mother, Ikuyo, is Japanese. Farsad attended college in Florida (Eckard College in St. Petersburg), but his soccer career was derailed after Iranian students kidnapped 52 U.S. embassy workers in Tehran in 1979. As Caple wrote, that event “instantly made things rather unpleasant for young Iranians studying in America.”
Farsad Darvish left Florida and eventually settled in — here comes the local angle! — none other than Cheney, Wash., where he worked in the cafeteria at Eastern Washington University. He vividly remembers working there when the Seattle Seahawks would come through each summer for training camp.
“When I was working in the cafeteria, I used to watch them carry two trays — one was a milk tray, one was a food tray, so it was very huge,” Farsad Darvish told Caple. “And, of course, I cheered for the Seahawks.”
That’s fascinating stuff, but the question to ponder now is whether the Mariners should make a run at Darvish from a purely baseball standpoint. And I don’t see it. For one thing, the Yankees are said to be mulling over a bid, and that means things could get expensive. Then again, after their disastrous experiences with Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa (to whom they paid a $26 million posting fee and $20 million contract and have gotten exactly two victories), they might be reluctant to jump in too heavily. But someone will — perhaps the Rangers, Blue Jays or Nationals, according to the early buzz — and the price tag, between posting and contract, is likely to be in the Dice-K ballpark. In other words, in the vicinity of nine figures.
That’s simply too much money for the Mariners to pour into a pitcher when a) the strength of their organization is starting pitching, from Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda at the major-league level to James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker knocking on the door in the minors; and b) they need to focus the bulk of their financial resources on the team’s glaring need for offense.
The Mariners, naturally, have done their due diligence, scouting Darvish in recent years, including this past season, when he put up an 18-6 record with a 1.44 ERA, striking out 276 in 232 innings for the Fighters.
But to make a run for Darvish, as talented as he may be, would be misguided, in my opinion. Unless it’s mandated from the very top, I don’t see the Mariners being major players if Darvish decides to post this winter.