Koji Uehara is a Texas Ranger for the same reason that Mike Adams is a Texas Ranger: The trade deadline arrived, the bullpen was in dire need of an upgrade, and general manager Jon Daniels seized the opportunity to acquire two of the best setup men in baseball.
Adams was born in Texas. He grew up in Texas. He went to college in Texas. He lives in Texas. So, he’s a little more familiar with his new environs than Uehara, a native of Osaka, Japan. When asked Tuesday what he knows about the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Uehara smiled and said through an interpreter, “It’s hot. That’s all I have so far.” Then he mentioned something about cowboys – and he wasn’t referring to Jerry Jones.
But even as he joins a new team on the other side of the globe, Uehara doesn’t feel alone. He isn’t the Rangers’ only Japanese pitcher. He isn’t even the Rangers’ only graduate of Tokaidai Gyosei High School. In the visiting clubhouse at Detroit’s Comerica Park, their lockers were side-by-side – Uehara on the left, Yoshinori Tateyama on the right.
They’ve known each other since the 10th grade.
“He was a super ace,” said Uehara, an outfielder in those days. “I was rooting for him in the dugout.”
Neither Uehara nor Tateyama is a super ace at the moment. But Yu Darvish is. And I’m beginning to wonder if all three will be teammates in Texas next year, as the Rangers continue cultivating a Japanese-friendly image in an unlikely locale.
Darvish is the biggest name in the Japanese major leagues, a 24-year-old superstar pitcher for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. It’s widely believed that the Fighters will allow Darvish to leave Japan and sign with a Major League Baseball club after this season. If and when that happens, Darvish will be an even bigger media sensation in 2012 than Daisuke Matsuzaka was for the Boston Red Sox in 2007.
This is true for two reasons. One is that Darvish is a better pitcher than Dice-K. The other is that a lot of us weren’t using Twitter five years ago.
Darvish lacks the service time to be a conventional free agent, but the Fighters are expected to make him available through the posting process, whereby MLB teams bid for exclusive negotiating rights in a silent auction. The winner gets 30 days to sign Darvish. If the sides can’t agree on a contract, the Fighters keep Darvish – but lose the posting fee.
Whether it happens in 2012 or 2013, Darvish is set to arrive in the U.S. – or Canada, perhaps – at a low ebb for Japanese talent in the major leagues. As recently as four years ago, the MLB All-Star Game featured three Japanese players, including MVP Ichiro Suzuki. But last month, there were no Japanese representatives in the Midsummer Classic for the first time in 11 years.
Ichiro, 37, is having by far his worst year as a Seattle Mariner, with his streak of 200-hit seasons in serious jeopardy. Hideki Matsui, 37, is in decline. Matsuzaka is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery, and some are wondering if he’s thrown his final pitch for the Red Sox.
As a result, Darvish could become the most popular (active) Japanese athlete in relatively short order.
For years, Japanese baseball stars have gravitated toward U.S. coastal cities with strong Asian communities – namely Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. But there are several reasons why the Rangers could emerge as a serious suitor for Darvish.
First and foremost, the Rangers’ interest in Darvish will drive the process, not vice versa. If the Rangers win the negotiating rights, Darvish and his representatives (Arn Tellem and Don Nomura) won’t be able to leverage their offer against one from a West Coast club. The posting process is a particularly appealing option for the Rangers, who have struggled for years to attract U.S. free agent pitchers to their hitter-friendly ballpark. An inability to retain Cliff Lee last winter was one of many setbacks in that regard.
Patrick Newman, an expert on Japanese baseball for NPBTracker.com and FanGraphs.com, said the Rangers have pursued virtually every significant Japanese pitcher to come available in recent years. The Rangers submitted a posting bid for Matsuzaka at a time when they didn’t have a single full-time employee devoted to Pacific Rim scouting. Today, they have four.
Texas showed interest in outfielder Kosuke Fukudome when he became a free agent after the 2007 season, before he signed a $48 million contract with the Cubs. “That (dollar amount) was well past where we could get comfortable, because at that time we didn’t have a presence over there,” Daniels said.
It’s different now. Jim Colborn, who was instrumental in bringing Ichiro Suzuki and Kaz Sasaki to Seattle during his time as a Mariners executive, is the Rangers’ director of Pacific Rim operations. Several of the team’s bright young executives – including A.J. Preller, Josh Boyd, and Mike Daly – have developed expertise in international markets. (Daniels praised Preller and Daly for their command of Spanish but added, “The impressive one is Josh’s Japanese.”)
Daniels took a scouting trip to Japan earlier this year, which made international news when a photograph of him in the stands – at a Darvish start – appeared in media reports. Robert Whiting, an author and expert on Japanese baseball, said he’s not aware of any other MLB general manager who scouted Darvish in person this year.
“Anytime you have more information, there’s a little bit more of a comfort zone,” Daniels said. “With the type of investments we’ve already made, we’ve gotten some good players without breaking the bank. If it doesn’t develop past that, we’re still very comfortable.
“It wasn’t a secret that I saw Darvish, but I wasn’t there to see any one player. I was there to get a feel for the lay of the land and the baseball culture, the same way I did in the Dominican a few years ago. If we’re going to invest in that universe of players, we need to understand where they’re coming from.”
If Darvish commands a total price tag similar to Matsuzaka – over $100 million, including the posting fee and contract – then the Rangers must determine (a) if he’s worth it and (b) if they can provide an environment in which Darvish would succeed. The first question is difficult. The second one is easy. That atmosphere already exists.
Tateyama, in fact, was Darvish’s teammate with the Fighters for six seasons, and the two remain friends. Tateyama said through interpreter Jiwon Bang that he has kept in touch with Darvish via email since joining the Rangers prior to this season. Tateyama said he hasn’t discussed the possibility of Darvish coming to the U.S. with him recently, saying, “He’s the type of guy who concentrates on this season. He’s doing really well in Japan. I don’t think he’s thinking about that right now.”
But if Darvish asks about his experience?
“Obviously, I will tell him Texas is a great place to play,” Tateyama said, “but I don’t want to push too much.”
Tateyama’s adjustment has been remarkably smooth, his English progressing so rapidly that he’s able to hold basic conversations without an interpreter. Part of the credit for that, he said, belongs to fellow Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis, who has a good grasp of Japanese after spending two seasons with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of the Japanese Central League. While Lewis is better known for his 3-0 record and 1.71 ERA in the 2010 postseason, he is also Tateyama’s unofficial English tutor.
Tateyama has discovered a favorite Japanese restaurant in his new hometown – Mr. Max in Irving, where the fish arrives fresh from Japan. A good dinner there won’t necessarily help him get outs in the seventh inning, but small comforts can go a long way when the cultural contrast is so sharp.
It’s also worth noting that a number of Japanese companies have their North American headquarters in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Yuji Tsuji, a businessman and member of the Dallas Japanese Association, said, “I received many emails after they traded for Uehara. Many families here are excited.”
“It’s a smaller community relative to San Francisco, New York, Seattle or Los Angeles, but it’s there, and it’s active,” Daniels said. “We understand that we’re not going to compete with those cities as far as what they bring from a traditional Asian cultural standpoint, but what we’ve got to offer is unique, in that we think we’re going to win.”
Darvish will be viewed by the industry as a luxury item and therefore a natural target for the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Both will pursue starting pitchers this winter. Yet, one baseball executive believes the American League East powers may shy away from the Darvish bidding because of past posting expenditures turned sour – Matsuzaka for the Red Sox, Kei Igawa for the Yankees.
The Rangers, by contrast, seem more enthusiastic about the Pacific Rim than ever before. And they will also be in the market for starting pitching, particularly if C.J. Wilson signs elsewhere as a free agent.
If Darvish comes to Major League Baseball, Tateyama predicted, the excitement surrounding him will be “huge.” And you know what they say: Everything’s bigger in Texas. The baseball world would do well to brace itself. Perhaps the Lone Star is about to meet the Rising Sun.