Darvish: The Next Japanese Baseball Phenom

America – get ready for the biggest Japanese import since the Toyota Corolla. Yu Darvish, Japan’s highest-paid and most celebrated baseball player, is ready to move to the US major leagues. All that stands in the way is mutual agreement on the no-doubt astronomical figure that the Texas Rangers may offer to pay him, and which should be known in about a week.

The Rangers submitted the winning bid of US$51.7 million in mid-December, a sum that merely gives them the right, under Japanese baseball’s so-called posting system, to negotiate a salary over and above the fee it paid his home club, the Nippon Ham Fighters, for the right to lure him away. The final figure is not known but bruited in the US$75 million range.

There is of course, no certainty that the Rangers and Darvish can reach an agreement. If negotiations fall through, then Darvish will go back to the Fighters for another season and the team will refund the money they posted. However, it seems likely that the American team will pay what it takes to get the services of this world-class starting pitcher.

Yu Darvish gets his rather un-Japanese name and perhaps some of his unusually strong physique from his father, an Iranian who married a Japanese whom he met in Florida (full name Farsad Darvishsefed). The pitcher is said to be popular in Iran, even though relatively few Iranians know much about baseball

If Darvish had waited two more years when he had put in nine years in the Japan Professional League, he would have become a free agent, free to negotiate a contract with any major league team that wanted to employ him. In these circumstances he must agree to play for Texas and nobody else.

According to the posting system the Japanese team announces it is “posting” or putting up for auction the services of its players. The 30 US major league teams then submit sealed bids. The highest bidder wins the right to negotiate with the player over the terms of his employment. They have 30 days to reach an agreement, in his instance Jan. 20.

The posting system was introduced 13 years ago after Hideo Nomo found a way to escape his contract with Japanese teams through a loophole to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers, causing bad feelings on both sides of the Pacific. The posting system was introduced to bring some order. Posting brings a Japanese club some compensation for losing a star player to the Americans.

Disregarding the small matter of compensation, Darvish and the Texas Rangers would seem to make a fine fit. The Rangers are major contenders, having won the American League pennant for the last two years, and last year losing a heartbreaker of a game to the St Louis Cardinals. Otherwise they would be world champions.

Darvish has played on other championship teams. In 2009 he sparked the Japanese national team to victory in the World Baseball Classic. Americans got a glimpse of him at the closing game in San Diego. It is fair to say that s small army of scouts and other Major League emissaries have watched him even more closely since his high school days. They like what they see.

What they see is a 25-year-old, 1.96 meter tall, 115 kilogram package of controlled muscle power, a pitcher with a 95-mile per hour fast ball, plus at least a half a dozen other pitches in his repertoire, a hurler who manages to strike out at least one batter in every inning he plays. Moreover, he has been totally injury free.

He is coming off probably his best season in seven years of professional baseball for the oddly named Nippon Ham Fighters (in Japan baseball teams take the name of their corporate owners) having 18 wins and six loses and an earned-run average of 1.44 (keeping his ERA below 2.0 for the fifth year in a row.) He would seem to ideal addition to the Ranger starting lineup.

Nevertheless, the new team’s owners must look on the acquisition with at least some trepidation, wondering if they will have committed $125 million (the posting fee combined with purported salary package of US$75 million – at a minimum) wisely. The record of Japanese pitchers in the majors has not been all that reassuring.

By far the most successful Japanese transplants have been the position players and the sluggers, such as the right-fielder Ichiro of the Seattle Mariners, almost certainly headed for the American Baseball Hall of Fame, and Hideki Matsui, who was MVP for the New York Yankees championship team in 2009 but who has bounced around the league since then.

Before Yu Darvish came into the picture, the most celebrated Japanese pitcher in the American baseball was Daisuke Matsuzaka (universally known ad Dice-K) acquired by the Boston Red Sox for a package – posting fee– that closely matches that of Darvish.

Dice-K helped power the Red Sox to their 2007 World Series championship, but has been disappointing since then, winning only 49 games in the last five seasons. The hot Yankees prospect Kei Igawa, for whom the New York Yankees bid $26 million, only played in 19 games.

In recent years there seems to have been a certain reluctance by the majors to open their pocketbooks for Japanese players. Oakland bid only $19 million for the services of pitcher Hisashi Iwakumi. They were unable to reach an agreement on salary. It is not known as yet what the Rangers might offer for Darvish. But there is little doubt that Darvish has the stuff to succeed in the majors.