Who is Yu Darvish, and is he worth pursuing?
If you're a baseball fan, you've probably already heard the name Yu Darvish. You're probably aware he's the best pitcher in Japan and could be available to American teams this offseason.
But how much do you really know about the pitcher whom you might covet because all he'd cost the Yankees is money? Or the pitcher you might want the Yankees to stay away from lest he become the next Kei Igawa?
Who exactly is Yu?
Darvish is a 25-year-old righthander with explosive stuff. The son of an Iranian father and Japanese mother, the 6-5, 185-pound Darvish has been a celebrity in Japan since he joined the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japan Pacific League as an 18-year-old in 2005. Major league teams have been scouting him for at least three years.
Darvish has a 93-38 record and career ERA of 1.99. He just finished his best season, going 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA. He allowed 156 hits and 36 walks and struck out 276 in 236 innings.
But we've heard this before about Japanese pitchers, haven't we? Irabu was supposed to be the Nolan Ryan of Japan. Igawa was a three-time All-Star and strikeout champion. And the Red Sox committed more than $100 million to acquire and pay Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
So why should we believe Darvish is going to be an ace here? Trey Hillman, his manager from 2005-08, said Darvish has a chance, and not just because of his body of work. It's also his body.
"His frame, first of all," said Hillman, a former minor-league manager with the Yankees who is Don Mattingly's bench coach with the Dodgers. "His size. Just physically, he's powerful. He can really spin a ball. He's got real big hands for different adjustments with grips. I think it's going to give him a chance to handle the more slippery American ball better than some Japanese pitchers have. High velocity. His pitch repertoire. And on top of that, he's exceptionally competitive. He loves to compete."
Darvish has a fastball in the range of 92 to 95 mph and mixes in a curve, slider and other off-speed pitches -- but no gimmicky "gyro-ball" like Matsuzaka. He has an easy pitching motion that lacks the funkiness of other Japanese pitchers, such as Hideo Nomo's body-turn or Igawa's hesitation at the top of his windup.
"Darvish is legit," said former Yankee and Met C.J. Nitkowski, who pitched in Japan from 2007-08. "He probably carries some of the lowest risk of any of the pitchers to come from Japan in regard to the question of whether or not his stuff will play in MLB . . . Darvish has the good fastball with life you don't see over there very much. The slider is a swing-and-miss pitch. He has ton of upside and should do well here."
Ah, but how would he do here? Not just the U.S., but New York?
"He was a celebrity at 18," Hillman said. "I felt like he dealt with it very good, especially with the way they can idolize you over in Japan. The biggest-name players, they go pretty nuts over you over there. I don't think the market's going to faze Yu Darvish at all. If I were still with the Yankees, I would not have any red flags at all about his personality or his athleticism handling playing at Yankee Stadium."
Is he even really coming? In his most recent comments, after the Fighters were eliminated from the playoffs last weekend, Darvish said: "It was a good season. There's nothing I can comment on for now.''
Darvish is a thoroughly modern star who blogs and tweets. He has been coy about whether he'll actually ask to be posted -- he can't be a true free agent for two more seasons -- but most observers expect the Fighters to post him later this month, which would make him available to all 30 big-league clubs.
If he is posted, interested American teams would submit sealed bids for his rights, with the money going to Nippon Ham if he signs. The winning team -- the Yankees won Igawa's rights with a $26-million bid in November 2006 -- then would have 30 days to negotiate a contract with Darvish.
The Yankees signed Igawa to a five-year, $20-million contract. That deal just expired; Igawa gave the Yankees two big-league wins and spent the last three seasons languishing in the minors.
The Igawa signing was seen as a reaction to the Red Sox submitting the winning bid of $51.1 million for the rights to Matsuzaka, who then agreed to a six-year, $52-million contract. He has gone 49-30 with a 4.25 ERA in five seasons but is only 16-15 with a 4.03 ERA the past three.
The Igawa and Matsuzaka experiences are believed to have made American teams more cautious when it comes to Japanese players. But you never know. Along with the Yankees, who have been guarded when asked if they are going to bid for Darvish, interested teams are believed to be Toronto, Texas and Washington.
So is it "Yu Gotta Believe" or "Yu Better Beware"? We'll find out soon.
"I think we're more prepared today than we have been in the past in terms of how we evaluate players over there and what risks we're willing to take," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "We've gotten a lot more educated by our past experiences, as you would expect. That doesn't mean we're going to shy away. That doesn't mean we're going to be more aggressive. That just means I think we've gotten more educated, that's all, and that's a good thing."