Sunday, February 17, 2008

Yu Ready for Darvish?

Rumors have been floated about a Yu Darvish posting to the Major Leagues after the 2008 season for a few months now. I declined to comment on this situation until I saw it develop or die in the Japanese press and I'm prepared to weigh in as Spring Training breaks.

The rumors indicated that the Yankees have expressed interest in acquiring Darvish via the posting system next season and are reportedly willing to blow away the posting fee that was given to Seibu for Matsuzaka. The Yankees have been scouting the young right-hander since his rookie season (2005) and have relied, apparently, on information from Kazuyuki Shirai who has been the infield coach and the team's #2 in command under Trey Hillman. Shirai participated in a coaching exchange with the Yankees just following his retirement from the NPB in 1997. There is some information out there that Shirai, thanks to his excellent relationship with Hillman, is doing some scouting work for the Royals these days, but I haven't been able to confirm that at this point. He was thought to be a candidate to replace Hillman, but did not in the end.

At this point, the rumors which floated out there in January have not been expounded on anywhere legitimate. The initial reports came via the sports wire in Japan and were printed on Yahoo! Japan's sports page and in the Sponichi and Nikkan Sports daily sports rags. The quality of information we are dealing with is dubious, but hardly a shocker. The main issue with this type of rumor is the feasibility of a move. I can't address anything from an "in-the-know" standpoint, as I think no one in the world beyond the front office of the Fighters and Darvish himself are able to determine the likelihood of a posting move next year. I can, however, deliver my perspective on the situation from the standpoint of a person who stands between Japan and the US and has made a minor career out of covering Japan for Baseball Prospectus.

Some reports have attributed quotes to Darvish about his lack of interest in playing in the United States but I have never seen or read anything to that effect, other than unattributed quotes. Even the Wikipedia entry on Darvish fails to attribute a source to that comment. I have always operated under the assumption that he did make a comment about his lack of interest in the Majors simply to be conservative in my analysis of his possible future in the States. I've paid very careful attention to Darvish for 3 years now and make it a point to stay on top of everything Darvish. You might know my work at Darvish Watch, although I gave up posting there mid-season last year to concentrate on graduate work.

Darvish has opened up to the possibility of playing in the Majors by my best analysis of his character and posture. His confidence has grown exponentially in the last year and a half and he has dominated the NPB as well as the international circuit. If there were a WBC this year, he'd be Japan's man on the mound charged with repeating. There's nothing Darvish has not done as a professional in Japan, save win an Olympic gold medal. He has a championship, a Sawamura Award, a Konami Cup, and an Asian Championship with the national team. He posted a 1.82 ERA in 2007 and was untouchable. At this point, his only weakness is early trouble with his command, which hurt him in a number of 1st innings last season.

I wrote the following for Baseball Prospectus in 2007, edited to avoid repetition:

Yu Darvish, RHP, Nippon Ham Fighters
Height: 6'5" Weight: 187 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 20

Darvish is a 20-year-old stick of dynamite. Born to an Iranian father and a Japanese mother, he has achieved a kind of matinee idol status in Japan for his good looks and big-game ability. Like many Japanese pitchers, he was thrown into the mix at the age of 18, and was asked to start winning right away. His first half-season was an up and down affair, with some very tough moments interspersed by flashes of brilliance.

Manager Trey Hillman has been quoted as saying that Darvish could one day be better than Daisuke Matsuzaka, and is already more advanced at 20 than Daisuke was at that time in his career.

In addition to that information, you might be interesting in knowing that he throws in the mid-to-high 90s with ease and has a wicked slider, change, and sometimes works a cutter. His size projects to much better long term success than Daisuke Matsuzaka. He has room to fill out his upper body as he is still only 22-years old, but his lower body is relatively thick and generates power at a Major League level. Darvish married a beautiful actress/talent this season after the couple learned that she was pregnant with their first child. Saeko Darvish has done work on the variety television circuit, some dramatic work, and some of the standard sexy bikini videos that young idols are generally obligated to do in Japan.

The speculation about Darvish and the Yankees has been described in terms of financial interest by the Japanese rumor mill, mainly identifying the 2009 open of the new Yankee Stadium and the simultaneous expiration of Hideki Matsui's contract. The press have focused on the Yankees' desire to maintain a strong Japanese base and see Darvish as the logical target to provide continuity. The speculation also surrounds Darvish and the 2009 season because the Olympics will provide an international forum for the young man to showcase his abilities as Matsuzaka did in the WBC. The price for Darvish may never be higher than it is now according to some, although I tend to think a good showing at the 2009 WBC is a perfect spot to elevate value thanks to the higher level of competition as compared to the amateurish Olympics.

If I were a betting man, and sometimes I am, I would tend to bet against Darvish being posted after this season. I think it would be far more likely that he would be posted after the 2009 season, or not at all. The factors that could prove me wrong are obvious. Money talks, for one. If the Yankees are aggressively floating dollars out there in the rumor mill that exceed Matsuzaka's fee, it would be foolhardy for Nippon Ham to turn their backs completely. The meat packing company is financially strong, but is hardly in a position to turn down $100 million. (That number is simply pulled out of my ass for the purpose of illustrating a point.)

The final question to deal with is the feasibility of a big money posting by the Yankees or someone else. In my opinion, if the Red Sox $50+ million is a benchmark for Darvish, I can't see why a substantially higher number isn't reasonable for Darvish. Why? Darvish is better than Matsuzaka was at 22. He's got projectable size at 6'5" and a good frame to continue developing. He has a complete arsenal and can pitch 9 innings every time out without batting an eyelash. He is the only player on Earth capable of being a bigger marketing boon than Ichiro in Japan. He's truly a rock star. At 23, Darvish would be under a team's control until his 29th birthday provided he could get a deal of that length from the winner of his posting fee. He hasn't even hit his prime yet.

I'll be following Darvish full time at Darvish Watch this season, so make sure to stop by there and take in each start. I will be living in Japan full time again in late May and will do my best to live blog each of his starts from that point forward. In the meantime, stop by and take a look at the style of the blog and read up on what I've done so far. I'll be updating the remainder of the 2007 season in some form very soon.


mehmattski said...

After the disaster that has been Kei Igawa, I can't imagine many Yankees fans getting too excited about the Next Best Thing coming out of Japan. Your commentary is essential, though, Mike, and I look forward to it.

I suppose, with all the money the Yankees will have next off-season, that the decision will be whether to throw all their money at a 23 year old Japanese pitcher, or at a 28 year old CC Sabathia...

Mike Plugh said...

The problem is, Kei Igawa was a pitcher in decline. He was never a hard thrower and he had major control issues. Most Hanshin fans had given up on him.

Darvish is potentially better than Matsuzaka, which may mean something in a year or two. Matsuzaka's 2008 and 2009 will determine the level of excitement that should exist for a Japanese pitcher going forward. Darvish projects better mainly because of size, so he's a different animal.

Pablo said...

You said he throws in the mid to high 90s with ease.............. I watched some Youtube on him and it seemed like he sat at around 91, hitting 93..

Jim said...

From your keyboard to god's ears, Mike.

Mike Plugh said... make a good point. Most of what you see from a pitcher is a pacing that allows him to go a full 9 innings, for example. Even Joba Chamberlain can't go out there and throw 5, 6, 7 innings of 97-99 mph heat. Darvish doesn't need to dial it up to 95-97 very often because he has TREMENDOUS offspeed stuff. As a 22-year old pitcher he is surprisingly savvy with his complete arsenal. I see him dial it up to 95 or 96 once or twice every game when he needs it, but it's simply unnecessary for the most part.

Pablo said...

I just got confused because I assumed you meant he sits at in the mid 90s, hitting the high 90s (with ease). But that is precisely what Joba Chamberlain did when he was a starter.

Yonsame said...

Hey Mike. Darvish pitched his opening game and was basically lights out. Man I would love to see him get posted next year and see the Yanks go after him. A gold medal at the olympics and a good showing at the WBC would raise his stock. What do you think the chances are Nippon Ham would post him after this season?

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