It’s often said in free agency that the winner isn’t the team that lands the star player, rather the 29 teams that didn’t. It’s the nature of the system, since the top bid is typically the one that goes beyond what every other GM thinks is prudent. It’s often difficult to see this in real time amidst the hype and speculation of the free agent chase while he’s on the market, and the national media attention and celebratory press conference by the team with the winning bid. Yet we all know how few of these mega-deals work out. Once you get into 9 figures almost all of the risk falls on the team, who later often find themselves hamstrung with a player who’s no longer productive and a roster spot they can’t open up, because cutting the player loose would be too expensive. But at least MLB free agency deals in known players and agents will tell you what other teams are bidding. The NPB posting process is the exact opposite, where teams are bidding blindly on players they are projecting. It’s hard enough to make good decisions when all of the facts are at hand, doing so while working in the dark is a recipe for kicking yourself down the road.
My position on Darvish was consistent from day one. He’s clearly the best pitcher to come out of Japan in recent memory and was worth pursuing. Previous failures with Igawa and Irabu should have next to nothing to do with their level of interest in Darvish, all players should be examined on a case by case basis. The Yanks have a need and have the cash to make it happen, but I have too many doubts attached to Darvish to justify the estimated price tag. If I put myself in Brian’s shoes, I have a hard time picturing myself looking Hal Stienbrenner in the eye and justifying a 100M outlay for a pitcher with so many question marks attached. Also, that need in the rotation is somewhat mitigated by the pitching depth at the upper levels of the Yankee farm system, as I discussed on Sunday.
As of the writing of this piece the amount of the Yankee bid is still unknown, but by all accounts it was modest. Considering the risk attached to a player who’s never thrown a single pitch in the major leagues, I think they got it right. I would have loved Darvish at a 50M total outlay (posting fee+contract). At 75M I would have swallowed hard and kept my fingers crossed. At north of 100M, I’m out. That’s the kind of money you spend on top tier, proven MLB commodities. Sure, those deals can go bad as well, but your odds of success are much greater. Paul DePodesta once compared being a GM to playing Blackjack. If you told the dealer to hit on 18 and he pulls out a 3, that doesn’t make it a smart move. If you make a habit of doing that, you’re going to lose more hands than you win. The Texas Rangers just won the right to hand over nine figures for a Japanese pitcher. This, from a team that just emerged from bankruptcy a few short years ago. Jon Daniels is a good, smart GM, but that sounds an awful lot like ‘hitting on 18′ to me.
Those who supported a mega bid for Darvish generally brushed aside concerns that I think are very real. Cultural issues, pitching every 5 days instead of once a week, the size of the ball, the best hitter he ever faced in Japan will be a routine assignment here. When he threw his best fastball in a good spot in Japan, he could be confident in getting an out. When he throws the same pitch here, that ball can end up in the seats. How will that affect him? Will he start nibbling, lose his aggressiveness and start getting bat-shy as so many Japanese imports (Dice K) and top domestic pitching prospects do? Will he start overthrowing, lose his mechanics and his command along with it? Only time will tell. Every year we see top prospects who don’t have all of these exogenous issues to contend with struggle to find success at the MLB level. Phil Hughes is still struggling to find his way after 5 seasons in the big leagues. Would anyone be surprised if Darvish takes time to adjust, and posts a 2012 campaign of an ERA in the low 4s and 13-15 wins? Now ask yourself this, would you be at all surprised to see Hector Noesi or Hiroki Kuroda give you the exact same numbers? The only difference, of course, is about 100 million dollars.
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