The Yu Darvish sweepstakes is turning into a spy novel. An international man of mystery. Exorbitant amounts of money. Suspense. Lies. Subterfuge. The only things missing are a shifty mole and a double cross.
With a 5 p.m. ET deadline Wednesday to submit their bids for the right to negotiate a contract with Darvish, the 25-year-old right-hander, teams tried Tuesday to suss out details on which teams were in, which were out and which said one thing and meant the other.
The Texas Rangers, for example, have told rivals they're cash-poor this offseason. A TV deal that will net them $80 million annually doesn't kick in until 2015. The purchase price of the team for the ownership group – jacked up in an auction by Mark Cuban – wound up tens of millions of dollars higher than expected and sucked up the $90 million signing bonus Fox Sports delivered.
To which one GM said: "Yeah, right."
And another executive said: "They're sandbagging."
The Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays are the favorites for Darvish, according to a survey of six officials with teams that have shown interest in what could be Japanese baseball's most coveted – and most expensive – export ever. If cash is indeed a problem for the Rangers – remember, the Los Angeles Angels said the same thing before committing $254 million to Albert Pujols – cross them off the Darvish list, because he is the sort of luxury item that never goes on sale.
Other teams that executives expect to make a play for Darvish include the Washington Nationals, who one believes will place the high bid; the New York Yankees, who a source said had yet to place a bid; and the Seattle Mariners, who have extensive experience with Japanese players and would satisfy Darvish's preference to stay on the West Coast – a preference that, according to one source, is "very strong" and "might cause him to reconsider" if an East Coast team wins the posting auction.
The officials were loath to acknowledge anything beyond a cursory interest and certainly weren't eager to discuss the cost of Darvish. The blind bidding in the posting system throws all of baseball for a loop. It's like free agency without an agent to set the market. All the factors in play make for a taxing thought process.
First, and most important, is Darvish's leverage. While the posting system by its rules discriminates against a player – the cost of the bid goes straight to the Nippon Ham Fighters, Darvish's team in Japan, leaving a far lower cut for him than is deserved – the majority of executives believed this case to be different.
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"He's got more leverage than any Japanese [player] I've seen," one executive said. "It's not like with Hideki Matsui where he wanted to prove himself here. I don't get that sense with Darvish. He can go back, make a ton of money and be perfectly happy. This isn't his be-all, end-all."
A GM agreed for a different reason: the timing. On Dec. 13, 2006, Daisuke Matsuzaka signed with the Boston Red Sox. After ponying up $51.1 million for the posting fee, the Red Sox shelled out another $52 million to sign Matsuzaka – and that was with free agency just kicking into gear.
By the time Darvish's team accepts the top bid – a given, for reasons we'll explain later – it starts a 30-day window to negotiate a deal. Which means that unless Darvish signs fast – a possibility if he's happy with the team that wins the posting auction, according to a source close to him – the process could stretch well past the point of any free agents worth big money being available.
"If you're a team that's willing to spend that kind of money up front, presumably you're a team that wants to win and you're not going to get shut out," the GM said. "In January, there's not going to be anything else. And there will be huge pressure from all sorts of places to sign him."
Of course, another GM offered, the idea that Darvish has leverage is probably greater in a vacuum than reality. He did choose to post. He did say he wants to play in the major leagues. He did have to weigh the implications of returning to the Fighters before he decided to take the plunge.
"If there's willingness to go back to Japan, why even post?" the GM said. "If you're going to give millions of dollars away to your team, what does that say? Wait a few years. Become a free agent. Get all the money and pick your team if you want to control the process.
"If I'm the player, I need to put that hint of doubt. Without that, what does he have?"
Well, there is the second issue: The Fighters are a desperately poor baseball team. The officials believed they would accept any bid, even something as low as $10 million, though that's far less than what it's going to be.
And that is because of point No. 3, which another executive relayed with regretful bluntness.
"Some idiot is going to put in a crazy bid because they always do when there's an elite Japanese player," the executive said. "It should be $30 million. But somebody already has fallen in love with the guy and will go crazy. And this time around, it might come back to bite them."
Because the sentiment that Darvish will return to Japan next season, most executives believe, isn't 100 percent posturing. Sure, it would be difficult to turn down a contract guaranteeing tens of millions of dollars in the best league in the world. Darvish also chafes at the very idea of the posting system if it's to rob him in order to pay a team that has been more employer than nurturer.
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Still, there is incentive to load money into the posting fee for the richest teams. It doesn't count against the luxury tax, so if the Red Sox believe Daisuke 2.0 is better than the first version, they could join in. Or if the Yankees don't want to go into the season for the third straight year with a rotation of CC and the Misfits, bidding big on Darvish could behoove them. Then again, his coastal preference – even if it's entirely true and well-intentioned – would help in negotiations were an East Coast team to win the bidding.
Should the posting fee come in low – guesses ranged from $30 million to $70 million – Darvish almost assuredly will be here next season. The higher it gets, the less likely. Darvish may, too, be the beneficiary of good timing with the new collective-bargaining agreement. Teams like the Blue Jays, Rangers and Nationals have been among the five highest spenders in the draft and international markets in recent years. With the CBA limiting amateur spending, executives expect that money to weasel its way into free agency.
And with so many teams unwilling to give up the necessary prospects for Gio Gonzalez and Matt Garza and John Danks and Jair Jurrjens, teams will train their eyes thousands of miles away. Toronto is in. Oakland is out. Washington is in. The Dodgers are out. The Rangers? Could be. The Yankees? Should be. Only the teams themselves know just how much they're in, and it's the one place the posting system excels: The intrigue is thick, the anticipation heavy, the curiosity palpable awaiting the announcement by Dec. 20 at latest about whose bid the Fighters accepted.
Soon enough, Japan's hard-throwing man of mystery will have a single suitor. And maybe then we'll get that double cross.
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