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December 21, 2011

Future Shock

Who Yu Gonna Call?

by Kevin Goldstein

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We now know that the Texas Rangers have won the exclusive rights to negotiate with Yu Darvish, who is generally considered to be the best Japanese player to be posted. The bid and expected contract for Darvish combined will exceed nine figures, but will he be worth it? To find out, I polled a number of scouts and big-league executives, many with international experience and in-person looks at Darvish. Instead of pure comparisons to others pitchers, I asked the insiders to place Darvish on a scale against a series of five right-handers, varying from good to great. Opinions varied wildly, but were overall quite positive.

Ricky Nolasco
Resume: He’s a frustrating talent. The stuff is there, the command is there, the peripherals often point to a breakout, but it just never happens.
The Vote: Darvish, 10-0
While those polled universally favored Darvish over a prototypical fourth starter who occasionally looks like a three, some admitted that it was a question that was at least worth some thought. “It's actually close,” said an American League scout. “I mean, look at Nolasco's numbers. Are we all really so sure that Darvish can do that?”

The unknown also played a significant role in the decision-making process for many. “I just think the change of scenery is so huge,” explained a National League international scout. “It's a gamble. If I was Texas, I would have re-signed C.J. Wilson over Darvish. Everyone is different, and it's hard to know how players will react to being in a new environment.”

Ian Kennedy
Resume: He’s more of a finesse pitcher than a pure stuff guy, but he’s coming off a year in which he finished fourth in the National League Cy Young voting.
The Vote: Darvish, 7-3
“These guys are known quantities, and that shouldn't be discounted,” said one National League exec. “Darvish could be a one, and he could be a four, and we won't know until he gets here.”

An American League scout agreed. “On a stuff level, Darvish is way better,” he explained, “but you need a pretty big sack to say he's going to outperform Kennedy.”

Another American League scouting official insisted that it's what Darvish can do with the stuff that gives him the edge. “A lot of pitchers can get strikeouts outside of the zone,” he explained. “When you can challenge hitters inside the zone and get swings and misses, that's what makes a frontline starter, and Darvish can do that.”

Matt Garza
Resume: He’s durable, proven in the tough American League East, and had more strikeouts than hits allowed in 2011.
The Vote: Darvish, 7-3
Garza was often the first point of heavy thinking and pauses for those polled. “I have to go Garza here,” said one National League executive. “He's young, he's American League East-proven, and he's got great stuff.”

Garza's placement on the spectrum also created some questions; two among those polled took Darvish over Garza, yet preferred Kennedy over both. “I think you're going in the wrong direction,” said an American League assistant general manager.

Zack Greinke
Resume: He’s a bit mercurial, but he won the Cy Young Award in 2009 and had a career-high strikeout rate in his first year with the Brewers.
The Vote: Tie, 5-5
As good as Greinke can be, his inconsistency and unique personality has some that were polled waffling on their choice. “Greinke is tantalizing, but you take that Cy Young Award season away, and he's not always a star,” said one American League scout. Another scout added, “After seeing Greinke down the stretch in the playoffs, I'll take Darvish.”

An American League executive saw some similarities off the field as well. “They're both weird makeup guys,” he said. “Lots of ego stuff, lots of style points. That could be to his advantage or disadvantage over here depending on how you look at it.”

Justin Verlander
Resume: He’s generally seen as the best pitcher in baseball, and is the reigning American League MVP and Cy Young winner.
The Vote: Verlander 10-0
While it should be no surprise that Verlander wins in a blowout, it gave one National League scout who has seen Darvish in person something to think about. “I know you think I'm crazy, and I know I'm higher on him than anyone, but I really have to consider it,” he said. “There might not be another pitcher on the planet who can manipulate a baseball like he does.”

Even many of those polled who saw Verlander as a no-brainer admitted that Darvish’s potential for number-one performances. “While he's no Verlander, optimistically, you want to see him as a top of the rotation guy,” said an American League executive. “Realistically, we need to see how the uber-stuff and uber-athleticism plays out here.”

For most insiders polled, the choke point for just how good Yu Darvish would be occurred somewhere between Matt Garza and Zack Greinke, although a majority still preferred the Japanese import. It's important to note that even the reservations about Darvish had little to do with his talent, and everything to do with the adjustments he'll need to make, from working on shorter rest than he has in Japan, to dealing with far more dangerous hitters, to a new strike zone. Still, reports from professional evaluators and the posting price tell you Darvish was the best pitcher available this winter. While he was priced beyond many teams’ reach, the industry generally believes the righty will be worth the heavy price tag.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

25 comments have been left for this article.

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