Darvish is next big MLB mystery

Think the big free-agency drama is over? Think again. Japanese phenom Yu Darvish figures to kick things back into high gear as teams jockey for the right just to try to sign him.

Albert Pujols’ free agency was mysterious, controversial, complicated and overwrought.

The forthcoming Yu Darvish drama might make it seem ordinary by comparison.

Darvish’s arrival to the major leagues has been anticipated for years, and the frenzy surrounding him will reach an all-time high this week.

For now, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, Darvish’s Japanese club, control the posting process. Major League Baseball teams had until 5 p.m. ET Wednesday to submit bids for an exclusive negotiating window with Darvish. The Yankees and Cubs both submitted bids, according to reports.

If the highest bid is acceptable to the Fighters, the winning MLB club will have 30 days to sign Darvish.

In other words, if the right-hander and his new team take the negotiations to the 11th hour — as Daisuke Matsuzaka did with the Boston Red Sox in 2006 — then there won’t be a resolution until the middle of January, less than one month before pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

Between now and then, the pursuit of Darvish is certain to fascinate baseball fans on both sides of the Pacific.

Aside from Ryan Braun’s positive test for a banned substance, the question of which teams will bid on Darvish has been the most popular conversation topic in baseball over the past several days. Within minutes of Pujols’ agreement with the Angels last week, general managers were canvassed at the winter meetings about their intentions to submit a bid for Darvish.

The precise number of clubs involved has yet to be confirmed, but two baseball executives who spoke with FOXSports.com over the weekend named the same five suitors: the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals.

The Rangers have had strong interest in Darvish for months, with general manager Jon Daniels traveling to Japan to scout him in person earlier this year. Texas has two Japanese pitchers on its roster, Koji Uehara and Yoshinori Tateyama, along with another player, Colby Lewis, who spent two seasons with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of the Japanese Central League.

However, some Japanese baseball observers have cast doubt on whether Rangers Ballpark, perhaps the most hitter-friendly stadium in the majors, would be the ideal starting point for Darvish’s North American career.

Robert Whiting, an author and expert on Japanese baseball, said he believed the Rangers and Yankees would submit posting bids on Darvish. But Whiting added: “If he signs with Texas, playing in that small park will not help him … I am afraid if Darvish goes to a hitter’s park, his game may suffer. Chan Ho Park was an ace at Dodger Stadium, not so good in Texas.”

Whiting said San Francisco and Los Angeles would be ideal markets for Darvish, because of the Asian-American and Iranian-American populations there. (Darvish’s father is Iranian.) “I would add New York,” Whiting said, “but the media there are really tough.”

Whiting also mentioned Toronto as a good fit for Darvish, because of its international nature and similar climate to Sapporo, Hokkaido, where Darvish has spent his entire professional career. Darvish is used to pitching in a domed stadium that’s similar to the Blue Jays’ Rogers Centre. In that regard, he’s more familiar with the conditions he would encounter in Toronto, as opposed to the Texas heat.

“I don’t think Darvish needs to go to a ‘media center’ city,” said Ira Stevens of ScoutDragon.com, an information service on Japanese baseball provided to MLB clubs. “Personally, for him, he’d be better off going to a park that’s better for pitching.”

As with any high-priced player, Darvish’s health history has been scrutinized in advance of his big payday. He pitched reliably over the past two years, the last serious injury issues coming in the second half of the 2009 season. According to ScoutDragon.com, Darvish experienced fatigue in his throwing shoulder and a loss of velocity in August of that year. He missed another month due to lower back soreness and also was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right index finger. He responded to the injuries by fasting to “reset his body,” ScoutDragon.com said.

Darvish also must make the adjustment from pitching once a week to the every-fifth-day schedule. According to the ScoutDragon.com database, Darvish made just one start this year on four days’ rest, which is customary in the U.S. major leagues; he pitched 12 times each on five and six days’ rest.

Stevens said Darvish is a superior pitcher to Matsuzaka, citing his size, athleticism, baseball IQ, and more efficient delivery. Stevens also believes Darvish will adapt to American culture more easily than many other Japanese players, since his parents met as students at Eckerd College in Florida and are very familiar with the US.

But we won’t know if Darvish is destined for stardom here until he steps on a major-league mound — after a team has invested tens of millions to bring him across the ocean.
 

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