Japan star pitcher Yu Darvish: the Washington Nationals weigh the financial risk

Elaine Thompson/AP - Japan's Yu Darvish, shown here in August 2008, is widely regarded as the best pitcher in the world not currently pitching in the majors.

At 1:04 a.m. last Thursday, when Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish announced his intention to pitch in the United States, a question the Washington Nationals and the rest of Major League Baseball had considered in the abstract became bracingly real. Teams had scouted and scrutinized him for years. Now, they had less than a week to answer another question: How much is Yu Darvish worth?

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Darvish’s Japanese professional team, made Darvish available via the posting system, in which teams bid for the right to negotiate with a player. Teams have until Wednesday at 5 p.m. to submit their bids, with the highest sum going to the Fighters. The winning team then has 30 days to strike a deal with Darvish, or else Darvish goes back to Japan and the team keeps the posting fee.

By Wednesday night or, at the latest, Thursday morning, MLB will announce which team won the right to cut the Fighters a check and start dreaming about how Darvish — widely regarded as the best pitcher in the world not currently pitching in the majors — would look in their rotation.

The Nationals have scouted Darvish for years, and General Manager Mike Rizzo watched him in person last season. Rizzo has called Darvish “a big talent,” which may be understated.

But can the Nationals — and more important, their ownership — stomach the financial risk it will take to land him?

Between the posting fee and the contract, the total financial commitment to acquire Darvish will likely end up between $110 million and $140 million.

As much as half that money likely would be dedicated to the posting fee.

“If you make a weak bid, you’re going to lose,” said Ira Stevens, who runs the Asian baseball information and scouting service ScoutDragon.com. “If you bid $30-50 million, you’re not really being serious. If you really want to win the bid, you’re bidding $50 million or more.”

The high price is not the only deterrent. By the rules of the posting system, an MLB official said, the winning major league team must pay the posting Japanese team the fee in one lump payment, not installments. Teams without liquid finances need not apply.

The nature of the bidding process, virtually a blind auction, engenders secrecy. Rizzo would not divulge whether the Nationals would bid, but even in his denial he showed his interest.

“Strategically, that doesn’t benefit us to announce whether we’re going to bid or not on him,” Rizzo said.

Well, you probably don’t have a strategy if you’re not playing the game.

The Nationals, owned by the Lerner family, have the available cash to spend on Darvish. The operative questions are: Are they willing to do so? And does Rizzo believe the risk is worthwhile? The trio of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and an expectation-fulfilling Darvish would surely help pack Nationals Park.

The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, typically the sport’s biggest spenders, will likely stay on the sideline, in part because of harsher punishments for surpassing the luxury tax threshold in the new collective bargaining agreement.

The Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers are considered the biggest threats to land Darvish. Both teams have extensive international scouting operations. The Blue Jays are owned by Canadian cable giant Rogers. The Rangers have the security of a $1.5 billion television deal that starts in 2014.

The St. Louis Cardinals could be a Darvish dark horse. They have the $200 million they did not spend to re-sign Albert Pujols, and bringing in Darvish would flip their 2012 narrative — they would be the team that got Darvish, not the one that lost Pujols.

The money will buy a pitcher with the talent to become the ace of a starting rotation. Darvish, the son of an Iranian father and a Japanese mother, has become, at 25, an icon in Japan. He has finished every season for the past five years with an ERA of 1.88 or lower. Last year, Darvish struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings and walked 1.4, and he punched up a 1.44 ERA. He throws his darting fastball in the mid-90s and has been clocked at 98 mph.

The natural starting point of comparison for Darvish is the other Japanese pitchers who have made the transition, with Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox being the most high profile. Darvish, though, is bigger, throws harder and produced more dominant statistics than any Japanese pitcher before him.

“God gave him more ability,” said a scout who has watched Darvish for years, including twice this season. “He’s 6-foot-5. He weighs 225 pounds. He’s a man. He’s done a lot to make his body big and strong. He was 175 pounds the first time I saw him. I don’t think he’s going to have a whole lot of trouble. There’s just too much ability.”

The Nationals view Darvish as an outlier to other Japanese starters, some of whom, such as the Yankees’ Kei Igawa and the Atlanta Braves’ Kenshin Kawakami, have been utter busts. His hard-throwing style and raw athleticism, they believe, will allow him to adjust to the U.S. schedule, which includes four or five days between starts rather than five or six.

“When I watched Darvish pitch this year, it looked like we were in Little League and there was that one guy who was taller and threw harder and was a level above the league,” Stevens said. “You watch Darvish, and he was a notch above everybody else.”

 
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