The day after the Texas Rangers won the bidding for the negotiating rights to pitcher Yu Darvish, a shipment of major league baseballs was delivered to the righthander in Japan so that he could begin training with them immediately. Consider it the first official step in the baseball version of coming to America. Spring training -- with the emphasis on training -- brings the next and more difficult challenge of making the jump from pitching in Nippon Pro Baseball to Major League Baseball.
The Rangers will have Darvish on the same training regimen as all of their pitchers, though Texas GM Jon Daniels emphasized that there are allowances within the general framework of the schedule. One pitcher, for instance, might throw 35 pitches in a side session while another might throw 80.
The trick is to get Darvish conditioned to throw more often (mostly every fifth day) over a longer season against deeper lineups while avoiding the huge pitch counts he often ran up in Japan. Said Daniels, "It will be a little different, both in terms of between starts and the importance of getting quicker outs."
In 2010 alone, Darvish threw 140 pitches or more in a game nine times. Those days are over. (You can add up every major league pitcher over the past nine years and not get nine 140-pitch games.) Even his 120-pitch games -- he threw 15 of them last year, a season total nobody in the majors has reached in the past six years -- will be curtailed. And make no mistake: with a huge following of Japanese media members in camp, every one of his spring training pitches -- even on a back field bullpen -- will be catalogued. Darvish might well get the most daily media coverage of any player in baseball.
What else can Texas do to ease the transition? The Rangers likely will keep him out of games against AL West opponents late in spring training so that hitters don't get familiar with him -- a practice typical for Texas' top starters. And they will consider adding a sixth starter to the rotation at times during the regular season to allow Darvish extra rest. Remember, in their rotation the Rangers also have Neftali Feliz, whose innings will be monitored as he moves from closing to the rotation, and Derek Holland, who bears watching because of a giant workload increase of more than 70 innings last year. And the Rangers do have Alexi Ogando and Scott Feldman in the bullpen as legitimate spot starter options. The Rangers could skip a start or two for Feliz or Darvish or briefly go to a straight six-man rotation.
"Last year we did it a little in the second half of the season where we found extra rest," Daniels said. "I can see us doing that a little earlier in the season."
Ogando, for instance, while getting stretched out as a starter, caught a 12-day rest in July last season and an eight-day break in September. The every-fifth-day regimen in the majors is not as set in stone as you might think. Last season, for instance, Texas sent its starter to the mound with extra rest (five or more days) 74 times, or 46 percent of the time. That percentage could go up this year to accommodate Darvish.
In 2008, spring training camps opened and went on for weeks without Kyle Lohse, a free agent pitcher coming off a 9-12 season. All winter no club offered the money Lohse sought -- about $10 million -- so he stayed at home and threw batting practice to college hitters while major league clubs prepared for the season. It wasn't until March 14 that Lohse signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for $4.25 million. Lohse, sprinkled with the magic dust of pitching coach Dave Duncan, won 15 games, earned another $500,000 in bonus money and signed a four-year, $41 million extension.
Today Roy Oswalt remains unsigned and is willing to play the Lohse waiting game if he must. Oswalt, coming off a 9-10 season, has not received the kind of offer he is seeking -- also something in the $10 million range or, to put it another way, something close to Edwin Jackson money.
Jackson will pitch for Washington, his seventh team in eight years, for $11 million. But for his durability (five straight years with 31 starts), Jackson is the definitive league average pitcher (60-60, 4.46 ERA) who pitches toward the back of a rotation. There is little upside beyond his reputation as an innings-eater.
Oswalt, 34, is seven years older than Jackson and coming off an injury-shortened season for Philadelphia. But for one year, which pitcher would you rather have in your rotation at about the same money?
Check out how Oswalt compares to Jackson when it comes to numbers from last season as well as the past three seasons:
One guy is making $11 million and one guy is unsigned. Go figure. Oswalt is the best pitcher available today. He is willing to wait past the opening of camps if he needs to, according to a source familiar with his asking price. The Red Sox, Cardinals, Rangers and Phillies (in the unlikely event they can move Joe Blanton) have kept Oswalt on the radar. The righthander has waited so long to sign that rather than caving on price just to be in somebody's camp, he might be better off waiting to see which club develops a need after camps open.
The Mariners have finished last in runs in the American League three straight years, including the past two seasons when they fielded the two worst offensive teams in franchise history. They just might finish last again -- depending how far Oakland craters -- but there is hope Seattle can be better. It comes down to this: How many plate appearances can they get from Jesus Montero, 22, Dustin Ackley, 23, Justin Smoak, 25, and Franklin Gutierrez, 28? Last year, when Montero was in the Yankees' system, Ackley did not debut until June and Smoak and Gutierrez battled injuries, none of them had 500 plate appearances for Seattle.
"If only because of maturity and health," said GM Jack Zduriencik, "I certainly think we will be better."
There is good news already for the Mariners, who open camp Sunday to get them ready for their early season opener in Japan against Oakland. Gutierrez has added 18 pounds of muscle, according to Zduriencik, after ending last season at a withered 180 pounds. Gutierrez missed the first seven weeks with irritable bowel syndrome, and when he returned he was unable to properly eat and train. He never did regain his strength. His season ended in September with an oblique injury. Gutierrez finished with a .224 average and one home run in 322 at-bats.
A healthy, hale Gutierrez will be a big addition, though the success of the Seattle season rests mostly with Montero, Ackley and Smoak. More than anything, the Mariners need to get those three hitters established as the middle of their order and the foundation on which to re-build the franchise.