Though it appears that the Mariners will go into the 2011 season with a static or decreased payroll compared to 2010, there has been a widely-accepted theory that their budgetary constraints are less strict when it comes to signing Japanese players.
Some of this may have changed when Hiroshi Yamauchi sold his shares of the Mariners in 2004, as the team hasn’t gone to extravagant lengths to sign a Japanese player since signing Ichiro in 2001, and hasn’t signed a Japanese player at all since signing Kenji Johjima in 2006.
However, Yu Darvish is a different kind of talent, and ultimately a different kind of opportunity than signing Johjima was.
It’s not often that Major League clubs have a crack at signing top-level talent from Japan in their early-20s. Last year we saw Junichi Tazawa pitch with the Red Sox, but he was eligible for free agency after asking for, and ultimately receiving a pass from all the teams in the NPB in their amateur draft. In late 2008 he signed a three-year, $3 million deal with the Red Sox.
Tazawa had pitched in the Industrial league in Japan, something akin to the independent leagues in America, and at 22 years old he started his American professional baseball career pitching in Double A.
At 22 years old (almost 23) Kazuhito Tadano signed with the Cleveland Indians in 2003. Tadano entered the American scene under extremely different circumstances than Tazawa. Rather than requesting that no Japanese team drafted him Tadano went undrafted against his will, with is participation in a pornographic video during his college years as the main culprit for his being overlooked.
Tadano signed for $67,000, with a shoulder injury and the aforementioned sex tape as the driving force behind the bargain price. Tadano is playing in Japan now, though he’s posted two ugly seasons for the Nippon Ham Fighters.
Perhaps the best parallel for Darvish, unsurprisingly, is Daisuke Matsuzaka. Matsuzaka left Japan after his age 25 season, and after an enormous $51.1 million posting fee that the Red Sox paid to the Seibu Lions, they then inked Matsuzaka to a six-year, $52-60 million contract (the latter is with full incentives reached). Matsuzaka had been utterly dominant in the four seasons that led to his posting, with ERA’s under three and more than a strikeout per inning.
Matsuzaka also impressed in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, pitching against many big leaguers along the way.
However, Matsuzaka’s career in the bigs has been tumultuous to say the least. After not averaging more than three walks per nine innings in the five seasons that led to his transfer stateside, Matsuzaka hasn’t averaged less than three walks per nine innings in a single season in the majors. Despite no apparent decrease in fastball velocity or command (compared to league average), Matsuzaka has seen his strikeout rate decrease every season since signing with the Red Sox.
One of the problems that Matsuzaka has faced is the apparent variance in strikezone in the majors compared to the Japanese game. The consensus is that the strike zone in Japan is bigger than it is stateside, and that while Matsuzaka made a living pitching on the “corners” in Japan, many of the pitches he’d thrown for called strikes in Japan were called balls in the Major Leagues.
Matsuzaka’s variety of offspeed pitches and corner nibbling style have led to inflated pitch counts, deflated innings counts, and an overall deflated performance in the majors.
Darvish possesses a similar skill set: A low-90s fastball that can reach the mid-90s, several offspeed pitches, and precision command. However, this plot may tell a different story. It appears that Darvish is willing to challenge hitters with his fastball in the strikezone, and gets groundball outs doing so. However, quite frequently, Darvish threw offspeed pitches for balls in early counts, a main contributor to Matsuzaka’s limited success.
So with this in mind, is there any reason to believe that Darvish will have any more success in the bigs than Matsuzaka?
Age works in Darvish’s favor, as he’ll be entering his age 24 season if he enters MLB next season. Also, Matsuzaka’s enormous price tag may have worked to drive the total asking price for Darvish way down. While a struggling economy has driven overall free agent dollars down in recent years, many Japan-America transitions have been billed almost completely on past precedent. If teams are worried about a Matsuzaka-like decline after a transition stateside, Darvish may not be as highly sought after Matsuzaka was.
There is speculation that Darvish’s posting fee will be $25 million, and that he’ll seek a five year deal in America.
More recently than Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda was a top-level Japanese pitcher who brought his services stateside. He was a free agent after spending 10 seasons in Japan (9 seasons in Japan are required before outright free agency is granted). Kuroda signed a three year, $35.3 million contract.
A $12 million salary over five years would put an expected total price tag of $85 million on Darvish. That would equal the $17 million per season, pre-incentive total for Matsuzaka. However, in some ways using Kuroda’s salary as a model for Darvish’s eventual price tag is a flawed endeavor.
Kuroda was a free agent, which meant that he could hold his own bidding war. While that likely drove his price up, he signed his contract with the Dodgers in 2007, a year before the major signs of economic recession set in. Kuroda also never dominated NPB like Darvish has. Kuroda was a pitch-to-contact pitcher who had several productive seasons, but only one truly outstanding season (2006) . And he was 32 years old when he entered the majors.
By contrast, Darvish is coming off his fourth straight season with an ERA under two, his third season in the last four where he struck out a batter per inning or more, and may be coming off his best season in NPB. He’ll be 24 years old for most of next season, and has been on prospect radar’s since he began his domination of the league in 2007, when he was 20 years old.
However, most heavily contrasting to Kuroda’s situation, Darvish will only be allowed to negotiate a contract with the team that wins the right by bidding highest on his posting.
The Mariners best shot at Darvish is if the bidding war for his posting becomes a battle of attrition. We recently saw Stephen Strasburg, perhaps the greatest pitching prospect of all time, see his contract expectations dip from an insane $50 million, and ultimately end up at a little over $15 million.
There’s no chance that the Mariners, or any other team for that matter, get Darvish for less than the $15 Million that Strasburg received. His posting fee alone, even if it comes in below the expected $25 million figure, will likely surpass Strasburg’s contract. Also, Darvish made the equivalent to about $4 million in Japan this season, so in order to get Darvish into a Major League uniform, an MLB team would certainly have to give him a pretty hefty increase on that number.
But the increase comes with a sample set of over 1,000 innings of production against high-level competition to justify it.
In financially-cautious time for baseball, teams are even more likely to include the posting fee in total cost analysis of a player. So if we use $25 million as the posting fee, and an $8 million salary as a model, a five year contract with the posting fee would come in at $65 million over five years. In this scenario, the signing team would commit essentially $13 million per season to Darvish, and have an additional year of team control after the contract was completed, meaning they’d have a full year to negotiate a second contract or engineer a trade while Darvish played under his final year of arbitration. Darvish could hit free agency at age 30.
If we use Matsuzaka’s success in the majors as a midline, it’s pretty easy to justify $65 million for Darvish over five years. Despite his struggles, according to Fangraphs, Matsuzaka has been worth $42.9 million in four seasons in the big leagues. If we use his strike-throwing counterpart Kuroda as a moderate ceiling, things look even brighter, as Kuroda has been worth $42.4 million in three seasons.
If the price is right, Darvish is a special talent, and the second-best pitcher available this offseason (behind Cliff Lee, and excluding possible trades). However, if the price tag on Darvish reaches “Matsuzaka money,” the Mariners are better off spending their money elsewhere.
If the Mariners are truly a team that values long-term process over immediate results, then pursuing, and potentially signing Darvish is simply a matter of dollars and sense.
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