Which free agent starter should the Yankees pursue, Part II: Yu Darvish edition

(Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images)

For Part 1 of this two-parter in which we discuss C.J. Wilson, please click here.

Ah, Yu Darvish. I first wrote about Darvish at length last January at Yankeeist, in a piece that still appears on the first page of Darvish’s Google results. Here’s a snippet from that post:

“It’s hard not to like what (Darvish) has done. Though only 24, he’s already played six seasons of professional baseball in Japan, racking up a minuscule 2.12 career ERA in 1,036.1 career innings. According to the B-Ref Bullpen, Darvish throws from a three-quarters arm slot in a drop-and-drive motion, and his two primary weapons are a four-seam fastball that usually sits around 91 to 94 mph and tops out at 97 mph, and a hard slider. His secondary pitches include a two-seamer, curveball, splitter, cutter and changeup. I’ve been analyzing a lot of pitching data of late, and almost all of the Japanese pitchers in MLB seemingly throw a little bit of everything, so it seems likely that Darvish actually does have seven pitches to go to, even though their level of effectiveness and frequency of use is obviously highly variable.

While the 1,000-plus innings on his arm may be cause for some concern, along with the fact that he’d need to adjust to pitching every five days as opposed to once a week, it’s simply impossible to ignore the staggering numbers he’s put up, as well as the fact that the acquiring team would be getting him beginning with his age-25 season.”

Those staggering numbers somehow became even more ridiculous this past season. To wit, here is an updated table of Darvish’s season-by-season and career numbers through the end of 2011, courtesy of npb.or.jp:

Somewhat improbably, Darvish managed to shrink his career ERA to 1.99 from an already minuscule 2.12 following the culmination of the 2010 season, on the strength of a career-best 1.44 ERA in a career-high 232 innings.

As a point of comparison, previous big-name Japanese import Hideo Nomo had a 3.15 career ERA in Japan before coming over to the U.S. (and wound up with a 4.24 career MLB ERA); Hideki Irabu compiled a 3.55 ERA over the 11 seasons he spent playing in Japan (and put up a 5.15 career mark in MLB); and Daisuke Matsuzaka had a 2.95 ERA in eight Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) seasons (and has a 4.25 career ERA in five MLB seasons). While all of these pitchers arrived stateside with boatloads of hype, it’s not a stretch to say that Darvish could be the best Japanese pitching import ever assuming whichever team puts up the excessive posting fee and works out an agreeable deal with the righty. Of course, all of that hype could go down the toilet once he starts playing American professional baseball, but even if his skills only translated as more of a number-two type, he’d still likely be worth the investment depending on which team lands him.

For what it’s worth (and it may not be much, depending on what kind of faith you place in the various projection systems), the Hardball Times’ Oliver system loves Darvish even more than it did last winter, when it projected WARs of 6.4, 6.3, 6.4, 6.4, 6.3 and 6.3, respectively, for Darvish’s 2011-2016 Major League Equivalent forecast. Oliver’s updated projections now call for Darvish to inexplicably be the best pitcher in Major League Baseball, and by a rather wide margin at that, with projected WARs of 7.3, 7.3, 7.3, 7.2, 7.1 and 7.0 for his 2012-2017 seasons.

That’s an average WAR of 7.2(!) over his first six seasons(!!) in MLB. Oliver has Roy Halladay averaging 5.5 WAR over his next six seasons; Justin Verlander 5.9; Clayton Kershaw 5.9; and CC Sabathia just 3.7. Granted, Darvish is younger than all of these pitchers save Kershaw, though I’m sure even Oliver’s creator would tell you that these numbers are an extreme, beyond-best-case scenario for Darvish, and that the MLEs for Japanese pitchers are far from perfect. Still, it’s tough not to get somewhat excited about the righty’s potential.

To add more fuel to the speculative fire, RLYW’s SG crunched some numbers to see how Darvish’s recent performances might translate at the MLB level and the results are fairly compelling: 195 innings of 3.31 ERA, 3.78 FIP ball.

While I’m sure SG would warn that any NPB-MLB translations need to be taken with a grain of salt, it’s still food for thought. That 3.31 ERA may not look like anything special when compared to what Darvish has done in Japan, but that’s nothing to sneeze at in MLB, and would have been the 14th-best mark in the American League this past season, not to mention second-best among the members of the 2011 Yankee rotation.

However, despite all of the eye-popping numbers, the gigantic wild card at the end of the day is that no one really knows how Darvish will perform at the MLB level. It’s guaranteed that he won’t be posting sub-2.00 ERAs, since not even the best pitchers in baseball can do that. Whichever team does end up with Darvish will be banking that the righty will be good for a roughly 3.00-3.50 ERA for ideally every year of his contract, and as we’ve seen with past Japanese imports, this level of performance is far from a sure thing.

Another possible concern for Darvish’s potential U.S. employer is that Japanese hurlers only start once a week, and anecdotally it seems like the every-five-days schedule MLB teams employ has absorbed some of the blame for Matsuzaka’s failures. I asked the Japan-based Yankee Source about this last month on Twitter, and he had the following to say with regards to Darvish and Wilson, and whether Darvish would have any issues with pitching every five days: “I prefer Darvish — younger, a serious arsenal of pitches with plus command, better mechanics, and a bulldog attitude. He is meticulous in his preparation before games so I don’t see (starting every five days) as a big issue. What’s impressive about Darvish is that he can correct his mechanical flaws on his own like CC. He knows his mistakes.”

As far as cost goes, it’s probably not out of the question that the posting fee reaches or even exceeds the $51 million paid by the Red Sox in late 2006 for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka, despite Dice-K’s less-than-blockbuster MLB career. The Mets and Yankees reportedly bid $39 million and $33 million, respectively, for Matsuzaka, while the Yankees paid a $26 million posting fee for the ridiculously inferior Kei Igawa. Any contract for Darvish would likely have to be at least six years to match Dice-K’s deal, and higher than Matsuzaka’s $8.6 million annual salary. Even if you conservatively project Darvish to be something like a 3-win pitcher, you’re probably talking a minimum annual salary of around $12 million a year. All told, between a roughly $50 million posting fee — though as many have noted, the posting fee helpfully doesn’t count against the luxury tax — and salary, we’re probably talking a total outlay of somewhere in the neighborhood of $120-$130 million for Darvish.

It seems like the expectation for C.J. Wilson is that he’d be lucky to get an A.J. Burnett/John Lackey deal, so if Wilson can indeed be had for five years and roughly $83 million, then you’re almost certainly looking at less of an investment when it comes to pursuing the lefthander. But the six-year age difference favors Darvish, as does the fact that the signing team will end up only having to surrender money and no draft pick for the righty.

If any team can pony up the cash it’ll take to get Darvish while also possibly having to absorb a massive financial hit in the event Darvish was a complete bust, the Yankees certainly could. Boston also could, although they may be less inclined to go all-in on yet another Japanese pitcher with no MLB track record.

So after spilling a ton of virtual ink on the relative pros and cons of Wilson or Darvish, you’re probably wondering who I’d prefer. Wilson’s appealing given that he’s actually done it here and done it well, while Darvish is a rather large question mark with what could be an enormous upside. I am also in favor of adding a lefty to the Yankee rotation whenever possible, and slotting the slower-throwing Wilson in behind the gas-throwing Sabathia would likely help keep teams off-balance. On the flip side, if you’re as talented as Darvish could in theory be, then it doesn’t really matter what hand you throw with.

Unfortunately I’m going to have to give a bit of a cop-out answer in that ultimately I’d really be fine with the Yankees signing either pitcher. I don’t feel overwhelmingly strongly in favor of or against either hurler, and I think either would represent a significant upgrade to the 2012 Yankee rotation. Of course, the Yankees could also surprise the heck out of everybody and sign both players. I don’t know of anyone who actually expects something like that to happen, but when it comes to our beloved Bombers and the Hot Stove, you know what they say about baseball, Suzyn.

I also don’t think the Yankees have to sign one of the two one way or another. Even if the current depth chart — Sabathia-Ivan Nova-A.J. Burnett-Phil Hughes-? (and you could also put question marks in place of Burnett’s and Hughes’ names) — doesn’t exactly look incredible on paper, the team still has enough in-house options to fight over the back end of the rotation. Brian Cashman could also probably find another Freddy Garcia/Bartolo Colon-type on the tertiary market if need be in January to patch the rotation for one more year, before going nuts next offseason and/or keeping seats warm for Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos.

30 thoughts on “Which free agent starter should the Yankees pursue, Part II: Yu Darvish edition

  1. What I think is amazing looking at Darvish’s stats is his walk total. The last 3 seasons he’s walked 128 batters in 616 innings which is pretty impressive.

  2. Nice article, Lar.

    I am not accepting your cop out answer though! Gun to your head, who are you choosing?

    I would have previously said Wilson probably, but over the past couple weeks as I’ve thought about it further, I’m more and more intrigued with Darvish.

  3. Darvish is the first can’t miss Japanese pitcher since the last one, who missed. I go Wilson. Although, my gut tells me the Yankees sign neither pitcher and see what they have in the system.

  4. Definitely an interesting choice between Wilson and Darvish. With Wilson we know what we are getting, but with Darvish its like playing poker. He could be a royal flush (best pitcher in the MLB) or could be a bust. I personally would take the risk with Darvish, but I am a gambling man.

  5. Darvish all the way. Younger, higher ceiling, doesn’t cost any draft picks. The Yanks have the money to take a chance with Darvish.

  6. I’ve been a bit swayed on Wilson throughout the year, but if it comes down to one or the other, I want to take Darvish. It’s the bigger risk, but he’s also got the bigger upside and age is on his side.

  7. whats a darvish….forget these not proven MLB guys..have you not had enough irabu boo boos..igawa..let them go the stinksox ..for 50 mil to talk again.. wake up guys..

  8. Sign Both Wilson and Darvish, Trade Burnett BACK to Toronto for Brett Lawrie, Murder…Ugh I mean fire Arod, Set Montero at Dh, Lawrie at third, Get Matt Kemp for Ramiro Pena, Trade Swisher for King Felix AND… END OF DREAM……
    Damnit, Well it was good while it lasted

  9. My first (greedy) reaction to to sign both Darvish and Wilson, find a way to get rid of Burnett, let Hughes compete for a roster spot(or put him in the bullpen), and let the B’s try and work their way into a roster spot as they improve. And why not sign Prince as well.
    Yeah, I know this is not realistic, so maybe I’ll pass on Wilson and save the draft pick

  10. Darvish. An ace for years to come at best. An innings eater at worst. There is no draft pick compensation, there is overseas revenue streams. He can be part of the next great wave of Yankee players. You know he can handle throwing a lot of innings for years, you dont know that Wilson can. Hes 6 years younger than Wilson. He also prevents in 2013 a Yankees team with 8 guys on the roster who are 33 or older and signed to big money long term deals. Darvish works out in the short term, he works out in the long term. If anything I just started beating the drum for this guy even harder.

    On the flip side, if he is a bust, what did you give up? Money. He can be sent down to the minor leagues unlike Wilson so he wont hurt the Yankees by occupying a roster spot, and he is talented enough that if he doesn’t work out he can be included in a trade. If Wilson is a bust your stuck with him for 5 years, pay the money, pay the draft pick, and most importantly he takes a roster spot up preventing you from breaking in a Banuelos or Betances in that spot in the rotation. Or signing one of the plethora of pitchers in the 2012 FA class.

  11. I think the best option is probably to pursue a trade and if that doesn’t work, bottom feed and revisit the trade market for upgrades in July.

  12. I like the shiny new toy, give me Darvish over Wilson. Sure Darvish may be a bust, but there is also so much upside. Plus as a fan, I’d love the excitment and energy in the stadium before this guy’s first start. It’s something to look forward to over the long winter. Wilson is a very good pitcher, but he’s also older, and would cost draft picks.

    Factor all that in, give me the young wild card.

  13. I have a hard time getting past the poor performance of the hyped Japanese pitchers. The face that Darvish throws six or seven pitches does not impress me because Dice-K had the same tag. It turned out most of those were crap. I fully appreciate that each case is different, and just because so many Japanese pitchers have flopped before does not mean Darvish will. Still, this makes me uneasy….

  14. Darvish of course. Wilson is not cutting it in the postseason – we don’t need another person that comes up small in the postseason and posts good regular season numbers. Darivish, he will bring attention and the spotlight to the Yankees and revenue from overseas. Darvish is worth the shot.

  15. The Yanks could easily get Darvish AND Wilson. The Yanks can afford it. Yu Darvish is filthy McNasty.

  16. I don’t hate Wilson but I just figure with all of the teams that will be in on him if the Yankees make it imperative to signing him they will offer a longer deal than he deserves. It really all comes down to contract, and I don’t nearly care as much about the amount as I am about the years. If Wilson wants a Burnett contract I would sign him no questions asked. But I just think with so many teams being in on him it will be larger than that. T.O. Chris is right. The Phillies are a near lock to resign Hamels, though I am not sure about the White Sox resigning Danks. As long as we resign CC everything else is a bonus. Darvish is actually linked strongly to the Rangers and Blue Jays ironically.