The guessing game starts today and ends Jan. 15 of the new year. Its subject is a 25-year-old pitcher named Yu Darvish, a freakishly popular star in his native Japan, a Chupacabra-level mystery in the United States and a man ready to leave the former so he can conquer the latter.
What the game involves, he soon will learn, is a series of questions. The transition to Major League Baseball for Japanese players never is easy, and the transition for superstars is fraught with failure. Which is why as Darvish hits the posting system today and starts his voyage toward the major leagues, perhaps it's best to address what his next 39 days will look like instead of the years thereafter.
And the first question, naturally, is: Who is Yu Darvish? For having lived just a quarter century, he is quite a lot, actually. A 6-foot-5, 220-pound right-hander for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters with five consecutive seasons of a sub-2.00 ERA, including his best yet in 2011, with a 1.44 ERA over 232 innings with 276 strikeouts. He's also a father and a pending divorcee, an enfant terrible and a philanthropist. Depending on the perspective, he was either comfortable enough or crazy enough to pose nude for a magazine. Darvish brought color to a homogenous Japanese society, a Jackson Pollock splatter.
Inside his camp, in fact, there was talk of trying to challenge the posting system, which oversees the transfer of Japanese non-free agents to major league teams. He decided against it, the opportunity too ripe. And so today he posts, teams will submit blind bids for the next four days, the Fighters will have four days to accept the highest – they will – and then comes the 30-day tango between Darvish's agents, Don Nomura and Arn Tellem, and the winning club.
Which brings us to the second question: Who wants him?
Fine, then. Who wants him enough to place the sort of bid that can win? That's better.
There are the early favorites: the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays, both of whom have scouted Darvish heavily, both of whom have money to spend, both of whom could use a top-of-the-rotation starter.
There are the usual suspects: the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who last forayed into the Japanese marketplace with Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) and Kei Igawa, respectively. It ought not sour their interest. The Yankees need a legitimate top-level starter to pair with CC Sabathia(notes) if they want 2012 to look different than 2010 and 2011, and the Red Sox's new manager, Bobby Valentine, said almost four years ago when he was managing a team in Japan that Darvish's stuff was better than Matsuzaka's.
There are the lurkers: the Chicago Cubs, whose revenue can support Darvish's price tag; the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose sale bids are due two days before Darvish's posting concludes; the Los Angeles Angels, whose acquisition of Albert Pujols(notes) and C.J. Wilson(notes) on Thursday for upwards of $325 million showcases their deep pockets; the Seattle Mariners, whose appeal in Japan remains strong; and the Washington Nationals, whose pockets are evermore charred.
And, of course, there are the Miami Marlins, who probably will bid $100 million just because.
[Related: Is Yu Darvish worth $100 million?]
No, the posting fee is not going to rocket into that stratosphere. After the Matsuzaka and Igawa debacles, teams are wary. This is baseball, however, which is to say a pair of things: Wariness is but a temporary affliction, and all it takes is one team to throw out a nutso number like, say, $51,111,111 – the amount the Red Sox bid for Matsuzaka.
In recent months, officials on teams that planned on bidding for Darvish as well as those that didn't were queried as to the expected posting fee. The ones who intended to bid guessed anywhere in the $20 million to $35 million range. Those who didn't figured more like $30 million to $50 million.
Whether that's posturing from interested teams or a true indicator of Darvish's posting fee remains to be seen. Whatever it ends up, it will have a drastic effect on the tenor of the month that follows and guide both parties toward the structure of his contract. Because the posting fee is so significant, the deal will be long – almost certainly five or six years. The salary is where this could get messy and begs another question.
Who has the leverage?
The team will offer Darvish a chance to play in the best league in the world and get paid tens of millions of dollars for doing so. To turn that down could look petty and petulant.
The hullabaloo over Darvish, on the other hand, almost makes it incumbent on the team to sign him. One of Darvish's biggest concerns was how the Fighters would accept him were his posting to blow up and he needed to return home. He planned on waiting to make his posting decision until the Fighters pressured him to do so, according to a source. Still, Darvish is comfortable enough with returning to Japan, the source said, that he will refuse to settle for a well-under-market deal.
No, he's not going to get C.J. Wilson money, even if those who have seen him consider him a better pitcher. But he wants more Daisuke money (six years, $52 million). One important thing to remember: Nomura, his agent, walked away from an offer for Hisashi Iwakuma last year after the Oakland Athletics won his posting. Iwakuma pitched in Japan in 2011 and is now a free agent. Though Darvish won't hit free agency until after the 2014 season, he could post again next season if negotiations fall apart.
[Related: C.J. Wilson added to Angels' staggering haul]
Should they go smoothly, Darvish will arrive a month later and hit his first major league spring training, a relative country club to the boot camps Japanese teams run. Attention will suffuse his life even more than it does now. In addition to the dozens of Japanese reporters who will document his life on a daily basis, hordes of American media will want to know who he is and what he means and why he came and how he'll succeed. And then there are the fans, the appearances, the responsibilities, not to mention forming the relationships with teammates, manager and staff.
Oh, and there's the whole matter of pitching, the one question that will take years to answer. While the sample size remains tiny, the Japanese ace in the major leagues has had a short window of success. Hideo Nomo: two years. Matsuzaka: two years. Perhaps Hiroki Kuroda(notes) is breaking that trend, what with four consecutive solid seasons, but the skepticism remains.
[Related: Passan's ultimate free-agent tracker]
It could color the posting fee and contract offer. Chances are it won't. Executives are stubborn, their convictions on a player steadfast, and enough believe in Darvish that they'll convince themselves the past won't play itself out today. Darvish is taller than any Japanese starter to come to MLB, and he's got better command and control, and his arsenal is superior, and the marketing possibilities are endless, and in an offseason with Wilson, Mark Buehrle(notes) and Edwin Jackson(notes) headlining the free agent pitching class, he looks mighty good.
Yu Darvish can be anything they want him to be. Who is he going to be? That's anybody's best guess.
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- Yu Darvish