(Courtesy of Getty Images)
(*- Assumes Darvish will be posted by his Japanese league team)
Yesterday I kicked off the AB4AR FF Profile series by looking at C.J. Wilson. Today let's break down the next biggest potential free agent pitching target, Yu Darvish of the Japanese Nippon Ham Fighters.
- Darvish is just 25 years old, still presumably before his physical prime, and yet has plenty of experience to fall back on. Granted it's all been in the Nippon Professional Baseball League in Japan, but Darvish has 7 seasons of baseball under his belt. He's not a typical 25-year-old pitcher with little to no high-level pro experience.
- Despite the young age, Darvish has already been built up to handle heavy workloads. He's thrown 200+ innings in 4 of his last 5 seasons, and has done it without suffering any significant arm injuries as a result. Considering the Yankees' recent history with managing young pitchers' innings limits, this is a good thing to not have to worry about with Darvish.
- Darvish has serious swing-and-miss stuff. He has a career 8.93 K/9 in the NPBL and that number has trended upwards over the last couple seasons. His array of pitches is reported to include a 4-seam fastball that sits low-to-mid 90s and touches 97, a 2-seam fastball, a curveball, a change, a slider, and even a cutter and splitter. He almost certainly won't be throwing all those pitches in the Majors, but he's certainly not at a loss for options.
- He pairs his stuff with great command and great mechanics. His career BB/9 in the NPBL was just 2.36 and scouts familiar with him comment on how well he repeats his delivery and manages his own mechanical issues. One scout in particular said, "His balance to home plate is impeccable and he repeats his motion extremely well because he knows his entire pitching motion like the back of his hand." That's pretty high praise and a valuable skill to have at such a young age. And when you look around the MLB and see how many pitchers struggle with repeating mechanics (see: Burnett, A.J.), that makes that report even more glowing.
- Because he's an international free agent, the Yankees wouldn't have to forfeit any draft picks to sign him. Just pay the posting fee, which doesn't count towards the luxury tax or the overall payroll, and negotiate a deal. And since he doesn't have the MLB track record to speak of, a Darvish deal will likely cost less than one for C.J. Wilson.
- Darvish's flashy stats (1.99 career ERA, 2.60 FIP, 0.98 WHIP, 55 CG, the above K/9 and BB/9 values) have all come against NPBL competition and almost certainly aren't representative of how Darvish would fair against Major League hitters. Logic would dictate that those numbers wouldn't be as flashy after a year pitching in the AL East.
- The heavy workload on such a young pitcher can be seen as a red flag by scouts and teams who are used to today's strict innings and pitch counts placed on pitchers who are Darvish's age. The fact that he hasn't had a serious arm injury yet could just mean he's "due" for one.
- Darvish's ability to handle all the cultural changes that come with being a pitcher for a Major League team is a big unknown. And there are some questions, albeit small ones, about the relationship between he and his wife. How would that play out in front of the cutthroat NY media?
- Recent star Japanese exports (Irabu, Matsuzaka) have flopped in the Majors. And while it would be unfair to use them to evaluate Darvish, it is something that teams are going to do. Because of all the cultural differences and style differences between the American game and the Japanese game, and how others before him have failed to adjust to those differences, Darvish can be seen as a risky signing.
- Between the posting fee (likely somewhere between $40-50 million) and whatever his contract will be (likely $50-60 million), Darvish could end up being the most expensive free agent pitcher out there. And when he's essentially being looked at as a AAAA-level prospect, that's a hefty price to pay.
Personally, I think Darvish is the pitcher the Yankees should be targeting the hardest. He's by far the youngest free agent starter available and easily the one with the highest upside. Pitchers this young aren't supposed to be as experienced and mature as he is. They aren't supposed to have this firm a grasp on their mechanics or this advanced a combination of stuff and command. By all accounts, Darvish is already a more polished pitcher than Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes, and by that comparison also more polished than top prospects like ManBan and Dellin Betances.
Based on their long history with high-profile Japanese free agents, both the good (Matsui) and the bad (Igawa), the Yankees are probably the team best-equipped to make Darvish's transition to Major League Baseball a successful one. And to top it all off, the Yankees can add Darvish by giving up just money, the asset that they have the most of. They've already scouted him multiple times over the last few seasons, so they have to have a plan for targeting Darvish if and when he's posted. The Yankees were wise to not be as aggressive on Dice-K as the Fraud Sawx were. I think they'd be equally wise to be that aggressive on Darvish this time.
P.S.- If you're looking for information on Darvish, the best source out there is probably this recent post on TYA by pro scout David P. It's a must-read for sure.