December 14, 2011

A half-century ago the American public was fixated on a Rocky & Bullwinkle adventure that chronicled the search for the Kerwood Derby, a magical bowler hat that turned its wearer into an egghead. Today hot-stovers on two continents endlessly speculate about the Darvish Derby, the posting auction for Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish that concluded at 5 p.m. ET on Wednesday. The 25-year-old right-hander, the most dominating pitcher in the Japanese professional leagues, went 18-6 this season for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, led the Pacific League with 276 strikeouts and finished with a sub-1.90 ERA for the fifth straight year (a career-best 1.44). Will the winner of the Darvish Derby turn out to be Kerwood-clever or Bullwinkle-boneheaded?

"Yu is the top pitcher in Japan and top pitcher of his generation," claims Robert Whiting, author of You Gotta Have Wa, the definitive English book on Japanese baseball. Darvish is also the top-paid player in Japan.

"Darvish is extremely talented," concedes New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "But in terms of how it transitions, it's hard to say,"

Boston's new manager Bobby Valentine, who faced Darvish while managing seven seasons in Japan, has said the 6-foot-5 right-hander is "10 times more talented and 20 times more poised than Daisuke Matsuzaka was at the same age." Considering that five years ago the Red Sox won the Matsuzaka Derby by offering the moon ($51.1 million to the Seibu Lions, $52 million over six years to Dice-K), it's presumed that to win the Darvish Derby, a team may have to offer the stars and perhaps throw in an asteroid or two.

Under the posting system, major league clubs submitted sealed bids for the exclusive rights to negotiate with Darvish. The Fighters were then notified of the highest bid, though not of the name of the major league team that made it. If they take the offer -- they have until 5 p.m. ET on Dec. 20 to accept or reject it -- the bidder then has 30 days to finalize a contract with Darvish. If no deal is reached, Darvish returns to the Fighters for another season, and no money changes hands.

The Darvish Derby's Catch 22: The higher the top bid, the more that team will have to pay Darvish, who's said to be looking for a contract with fewer years than Dice-K's and a much higher annual salary. If his terms aren't met, he has indicated that he'd be happy to walk. If only as a point of pride, he would have to be paid at least as much as the Fighters' posting fee, and more than Dice-K's $51.1 million.

At this point, seven franchises look to be the most serious bidders, with Toronto and Texas as the favorites:

1. Toronto Blue Jays (odds: 5-2)

The interest is there: Late this summer Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos flew to Japan to personally scout Darvish.

The money is there: The Blue Jays have the game's wealthiest owner in Rogers Communications, and insist that they have no compunction about spending once the team is a contender. Not only are the Jays clear of the preposterous salaries of Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, but Darvish would not count against the luxury tax.

The need is there: Signing Darvish won't automatically make Toronto a World Series contender, but it could take them a step closer.

2. Texas Rangers (3-1)

Conventional thinking is that Rangers president Nolan Ryan will throw a high, hard one to countermand the division rival Los Angeles Angels, who poached its ace, free-agent C.J. Wilson, and dropped $254 million on Albert Pujols. But is the unproven Darvish (unproven in the U.S., at least) worth the investment to a tight-fisted team whose 2011 opening day payroll is already expected to rise by some $13 million next spring? Sure, the Rangers have been trolling for starting pitchers, but they seem more interested in cheaper alternatives such as Athletics lefty Gio Gonzalez and Cubs right-hander Matt Garza. Factor in a $30 million payment to former CEO Chuck Greenberg, $12 million in stadium improvements and a rumored play for free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder (estimated asking price: $150 million), and Texas doesn't have a whole lot of wriggle room.

3. New York Yankees (15-1)

The Yankees still suffer from buyer's remorse over the signings of Japanese hurlers Katsihiro Maeda (1996), Hideki Irabu (1997) and Kei Igawa (2006). All were busts, arguably none more Maeda, a 24-year-old righty who had been clocked with a 98-mph fastball. Called the Dennis Rodman of baseball, Maeda never made the The Show and recorded as many hair colors in the Yankees farm system (silver, purple, hot-pink...) as victories. By 2001, he was back in Japan.

It may not help Darvish's cause that Los Angeles Dodgers bench coach Trey Hillman, Darvish's first pro skipper, dubs the swaggering heartthrob the "Elvis of Japan." Suspicious minds think that GM Brian Cashman may be readying a major stealth move, as he did with Mark Teixeira two years ago. More likely, he's looking to avoid another possible trip to the Heartbreak Hotel.

4. Chicago Cubs (17-1)

As GM of the Red Sox, Theo Epstein won the bidding war for Matsuzaka. But now that he's running the Cubs, he's expected to lowball the Fighters in what projects to be a highball battle.

5. Boston Red Sox (19-1)

Though Valentine thinks Darvish could be among the five best pitchers in the majors, team management has been chastened by the career of Matsuzaka, who started strong (33-15 with a 3.72 ERA over his first two seasons) but faded quickly (16-15, 5.03 ERA over the last three). Elbow surgery will likely ice Dice-K until well past the All-Star break.

6. Seattle Mariners (25-1)

The Mariners, who plucked Ichiro Suzuki from Japan in 2000, would fulfill Darvish's stated preference to play on the West Coast. As much as Darvish would fit neatly behind Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda in Seattle's rotation, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said earlier this month that he'd rather bring in a veteran pitcher to counsel some of the younger arms. That remark seemed to rule out splurging on Darvish.

7. Los Angeles Angels (30-1)

Despite their recent $331.5 million outlay for Wilson and Pujols, the Angels may have more discretionary income at their disposal than the Rangers. Texas' new 20-year, $1.6 billion TV deal with Fox Sports Southwest doesn't kick in until 2015. L.A.'s 20-year, $3 billion contract with Fox Sports West begins next year. Still, the Angels have shown less-than-zero interest in turning the network into Yu-Tube.

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