Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Yu Darvish situation

Much like Prince Fielder, Yu Darvish is a name that has been tossed around by Blue Jays fans this summer as a possible acquisition in the offseason. I think to get a better perspective on the Yu Darvish situation, four questions must be asked;

How much would he cost?

As a Japanese player still under contract in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, Yu Darvish must pass through the posting system before a contract can be negotiated. The posting system is a pseudo silent auction for MLB teams where they are allowed to place a bid on the player during the posting window. Once the window closes, the team who placed the largest bid will win the negotiating rights to that player. At that point, the team has 30 days to agree to a contract with the player. If no contract is agreed upon, the player is returned to his Japanese club, and the Major League club retains their posting fee.

Starting with Alejandro Quezada and Timo Perez on February 2nd, 1999, 15 players have attempted to reach Major League Baseball through 17 posting process cases. While some did not receive any bids, and others had insignificant posting fees, there are 7 cases where the winning bid was greater than 4 million dollars:

November 2000: Ichiro Suzuki (Mariners) -- 13.125M
January 2002: Kazuhisa Ishi (Dodgers) -- 11.26M
November 2006: Daisuke Matsuzaka (Red Sox) -- 51.111M
November 2006: Akinori Iwamura (Devil Rays) -- 4.5M
November 2006: Kei Igawa (Yankees) -- 26M
November 2010: Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Twins) -- 5.329M
November 2010: Hisashi Iwakuma (Athletics) -- 19.1M **

** -- Iwakuma and the Athletics could not agree to terms on a contract.

Teams who are interested in bidding on Yu Darvish will immediately draw comparisons to Daisuke Matsuzaka. At the time of his posting, Matsuzaka was 25 years old but had already pitched 8 seasons in the NPBL, totalling 1402.2 innings. He led the league in strikeouts four times (2000, 2001, 2003, 2005) and ERA twice (2003, 2004). Entering 2011, Darvish had equally if not more impressive career statistics, with a 2.12 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 974 strikeouts in 1036.1 innings. He has bested those numbers in 2011, with a 1.47 ERA, 0.83 ERA, and 223 strikeouts in 190 innings. Beyond the statistics, Darvish has size in his favor, standing 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighing 185 pounds, whereas Matsuzaka stands only 6 feet tall while weighing the same.

That brings us to the question of the size of posting fee. While Darvish has the numbers and size on his side, he has history working against him. Five years into his six year deal, Matsuzaka has completely failed to live up to the lofty expectations, with a career 4.25 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. While he has maintained the strikeouts (career 8.2 K/9, though declining in recent years), Matsuzaka's biggest problem was that he completely lost his control while facing the more patient North American hitters (career 4.4 BB/9).

With that being said, it is impossible to predict the exact posting fee. We don't know who will be making a bid (and likely won't until the actual bid is submitted), and we don't know how aggressive those teams will be after seeing the Red Sox and Yankees burned by Matsuzaka and Igawa in 2006. The posting fee could be anywhere between 25 million and 60 million, though if I were forced to make a prediction I'd go slightly below the midpoint and suggest 40 million.

After the posting fee is sorted out, the contract must be agreed upon. Given his age and the potential size of the posting fee, the winning team will likely want to sign him to a long term deal in order to make the total annual salary more justifiable. Six years would probably be the target, with the total contract being in the 40 to 60 million dollar range. Something quite similar to Matsuzaka's 6/52 contract is also entirely possible.

When the posting fee and contract are combined, the low end appears to be 65 million over 6 years and the high end 120 million. My best estimate would be 92 million total spread over the 6 years.

Will he succeed in the Major Leagues?

Japanese starting pitchers do not have a strong history of success in the major leagues. Matsuzaka was decent for a short while but then fell on his face. Kei Igawa has spent almost his entire career in the minor leagues since coming over to North America. The most successful Japanese import could be Hideo Nomo. Nomo pitched 12 seasons in the major leagues, though much like Matsuzaka his best years were his first two years. What separates Hideo Nomo from the rest of the pack of Japanese pitchers is his longevity, pitching nearly 2000 innings in the major leagues. As his career went on, Nomo experienced much of what Matsuzaka has suffered through more recently, with increased walk rates crippling his consistently high strikeout rates.

While the history isn't in his favor, I firmly believe Darvish can have success in Major League Baseball. Both Nomo and Matsuzaka have proven that strikeout rates can carry over from the NPBL to MLB, the biggest hurdle to conquer is controlling the strikezone and limiting walks. I believe this favors Darvish (career 2.40 BB/9, 1.42 BB/9 in 2011) as he has far better command than Matsuzaka or Nomo have/had. Yu Darvish has stuff, the command, and the size you'd like to see out of a starting pitcher. While he may not be a true ace like his NPBL numbers suggest he could be, Darvish should easily be a #2 pitcher in the major leagues.

Do the Blue Jays need him?

Need is a funny word in baseball, as an organization's needs can change dramatically so easily. A need can be created by an injury to a player or simply by a player who was counted on failing to live up expectations. At the same time, a need can be extinguished by a player suddenly playing over his head and taking on more responsibility, or by a prospect being called up from the minor leagues to fill a void.

Toronto currently has a lot of pitching depth in the major leagues (Romero, Morrow, Cecil, Alvarez, Drabek), the upper minor leagues (Hutchison, McGuire, Molina, Jenkins), and even in the low minor leagues (Syndergaard, Nicolino, Norris). On the surface, pitching would not appear to be a big need. However, in 2011 alone, Morrow and Cecil failed to take the next step while Kyle Drabek fell on his face, causing Toronto's team ERA to sink to 4.37 (11th in AL, 25th in MLB). While things should get better in 2012, a pitcher like Darvish would be a huge shot in the arm for this pitching staff, and would create more opportunities for the club in the trade market. General Manager Alex Anthopolous is obviously at least receptive to this idea, as he recently took a personal scouting trip to Japan to watch Darvish pitch.

Is the risk worth it?

While it may sound crazy, getting involved in Yu Darvish is absolutely risk free, and only a fool would neglect the opportunity to get a pitcher of this magnitude. The most important aspect of the posting process is that the winning team does not have to spend a dime unless they are comfortable with what they are paying. Toronto has every reason to make an aggressive bid for Yu Darvish. If we were to win the bid, we have an exclusive negotiating window with one of the top prizes of the offseason. If both sides can agree to a contract that the front office feels is fiscally responsibile, we have ourselves a top of the rotation pitcher. If we fail to reach an agreement, then Darvish goes back to Japan for at least one more year, and we blocked our rivals from acquiring an asset.

The only way you can burn yourself through the posting process is through poor player evaluation coupled with foolish spending habits, neither of which are traits our front office has shown to have. I would be comfortable with anything up to what Boston paid for Matsuzaka -- 6 years, 103 million total. Beyond the productivity, Darvish brings a country of investors and baseball fans, and Rogers Communications Inc. loves potential investors. Finally, and perhaps least importantly, it would send a message to the casual Blue Jays fans in Toronto (and the rest of Canada) who "want the team to spend some money" that this team is competitive and has a legitimate shot at the playoffs in the very near future, and hopefully bring them to the ballpark once again.

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