Determined Texas wins rights to Darvish

The night the Rangers lost the World Series, general manager Jon Daniels stood just outside the clubhouse and told me quietly, “We’ve got to get better.”

I thought, better? C’mon. Nelson Cruz catches David Freese’s drive in Game 6, and the Rangers win the Series. Losing in seven was almost unbearable, but seriously, the Rangers were plenty good enough.

Well, GMs don’t think like that. GMs always think ahead — sometimes even three years ahead, as the Rangers did in their pursuit of Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish.

That pursuit moved closer to reality Monday night, with the Rangers learning that they had outbid every other major league club for Darvish’s negotiating rights.

The Rangers will pay a hefty price if the deal gets done — $51.7 million for the mere privilege of speaking with Darvish and perhaps another $60 million to sign him long term.

But, to acquire one of the most celebrated pitchers in the world, they won’t lose prospects, won’t lose draft picks, won’t need to convince him — as they would a major league free agent — to choose the hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark over a more forgiving pitching environment.

For Darvish, it’s the Rangers or else, at least if he wants to pitch in the majors next season. The risk for the Rangers, of course, is that he will turn out to be the latest overhyped, overpaid Japanese pitcher, joining a list that includes Hideki Irabu, Daisuke Matsuzaka and others.

Still, this is a landmark moment for the Texas franchise, and not simply because the signing of Darvish would help counter the Angels’ additions of free-agent first baseman Albert Pujols and left-hander C.J. Wilson.

The addition of a Japanese star expands a team’s reach on and off the field. Darvish would do that, particularly if he became the same type of rock star in North America as he is in Japan. But this is a baseball move first and foremost, one that potentially will create a unique problem in Rangers history:

Too much starting pitching.

The two-time defending American League champions already are set with five talented starters: Right-handers Colby Lewis, Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando, and lefties Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.

If the Rangers sign Darvish, they could return Ogando to a setup role, where he would team with Mike Adams and new closer Joe Nathan to give the team a formidable late-inning trio.

The Rangers also could trade Harrison or even Lewis, perhaps for a center fielder. Or, they could simply keep the Gang of Six intact, knowing that few teams make it through a season using only five starting pitchers, anyway.

The fascinating part about all this is that for all the work the Rangers put into Darvish, they never were assured of getting him. Such is the nature of the posting process, and the blind auction that determines the high bidder.

A week ago, the Rangers were making trade offers for starting pitchers such as Cubs righty Matt Garza, Athletics lefty Gio Gonzalez and Rays righty Wade Davis. If one of those offers had been accepted, they might have taken a different approach with Darvish, according to a source with knowledge of the team’s thinking.

As it happened, ownership made an exception in approving the bid for Darvish. Those financial issues that I wrote about last week — the ones that I reported might steer the Rangers away from the Darvish bidding — were legitimate, sources say. But clearly, something changed.

Perhaps the Rangers were sandbagging, trying to create the perception that they would refrain from a major bid; they would not be the first team to engage in such a practice. Or perhaps ownership simply looked at the big picture and said, “We’re in.”

Whatever, the Rangers took an important step, shifting the conversation to Darvish and away from their devastating Series defeat. It’s funny: Darvish might prove less effective than Wilson, the pitcher he would replace, over the next five years. But such is Darvish’s mystique, at this moment it seems that the two hardly compare.

The next step is for the two sides to negotiate a contract in no more than 30 days. The process figures to be less laborious than agent Scott Boras’ negotiations with the Red Sox over Matsuzaka in 2006. That doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Darvish’s agent, Arn Tellem, gushed over the Rangers, Dallas-Fort Worth and the team’s fans in a statement Monday night. But he also said, “Yu is honored to be prized so highly and recognized as a once-in-a-generation pitcher.”

Expect the usual back and forth, but Tellem is a deal-maker and Darvish can’t turn back now. The Rangers will pay the pitcher far more than he would earn if he returned to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. What’s more, Darvish “loves” the Rangers and looks forward to joining a winning organization, according to one baseball source.

The Darvish talks will put the Rangers on hold, preventing them from pursuing other moves, but who cares? Sources say they will not pursue free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder to counter Pujols in large part because such a move is unnecessary — the Rangers scored 855 runs last season, the Angels 667. True, the Rangers could miss out on some trades for starting pitchers, but most likely they will end up with Darvish, anyway.

I don’t know that I’ll ever forget the determined look on Daniels’ face after Game 7 of the Series, or the brave front that his words conveyed in defeat. But he wasn’t kidding that night when he vowed to make the Rangers better. The signing of Darvish would be a bold move toward doing just that.