PEORIA, Arizona—On a cool and breezy afternoon at the Peoria Sports Complex, the Japanese media members nearly outnumbered the 2,910 fans in the stands.
No, they weren't here to see the redoubtable Jeff Suppan try to resurrect his career with the Padres after spending last season at Triple-A. Yu Darvish was the one and only attraction as the Rangers beat the Padres 6-2 in a Cactus League game. The $107,703,411 pitcher threw two scoreless in his exhibition debut and drew plenty of raves, including one from a major-league scout who was on hand to see Yumania up close.
"Pretty impressive," the scout said. "His fastball topped out at 95 mph, and he was throwing effortlessly. He threw four pitches for strikes. He kept the hitters off balance. There was a lot to like.”
"You don't get too excited over someone pitching two innings at the start of spring training, but you can see why he is so hyped. He's got great stuff, and he really has a good idea of what he's doing for a 25-year-old kid."
Darvish, though, isn't a normal 25-year-old kid. He spent the last seven seasons dominating Pacific League hitters in Nippon Professional Baseball, going 93-38 with a 1.98 ERA while pitching 55 complete games and 18 shutouts and winning two Most Valuable Player awards.
Padres backup catcher John Baker struck out in his only plate appearance against Darvish in a five-pitch sequence that started with a fastball and continued with a curveball, a split-finger, a changeup, and a cutter.
"I've never seen a pitcher throw five different pitches in the same at-bat," Baker said. "That was pretty amazing. We were told he throws seven pitches. Nobody throws seven pitches."
Darvish claims he throws seven pitches and some of the Japanese reporters who covered him in the NPB claim he has 11 pitches in his arsenal.
"If he has seven pitches, there's no way you can go up to the plate looking for one of them," Padres third base prospect James Darnell said. "That's just impossible. If he can throw seven pitches for strikes, he's going to be tough to beat."
Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said Darvish could be considered to have nine pitches: three different types of fastballs and two different varieties of changeups, curveballs, and sliders.
Yet Maddux was also quick to point out that "It's really four pitches. The great thing, though, is if not everything is working on a certain day, he still has enough variations of pitches that he can narrow them to four and have enough weapons to get major-league hitters out."
The Rangers couldn’t have been happier with what they saw from Darvish the first time he faced hitters from opposing teams, considering they paid a $51,703,411 posting fee to the Hokaido Nippon Ham Fighters for the right to negotiate with the right-hander and then signed him to a six-year, $56-million contract.
Darvish kept his cool when the Padres put runners in scoring position against him in both innings with a one-out double by Orlando Hudson in the first and a leadoff double by Will Venable in the second.
Venable drove a double off the wall just to the left of the 410-foot sign in center field in the second inning, moving Mark Kotsay to third on a ground out. Darvish then reached high to snare Darnell's comebacker and threw to catcher Mike Napoli, who tagged Venable out in a rundown. Darvish followed the sequence by striking out Baker to end the inning.
Darvish seemed unimpressed with his outing when he met with the media, smiling only when asked about his play on Darnell's chopper.
"I was wondering when someone was going to ask about that," Darvish said.
The Rangers, however, did not spend nine figures on Darvish just to win a Gold Glove. They are expecting a lot more bang for their buck, and Baker believes he could provide it.
"It's always hard to say how a player is going to do when he comes to the major leagues," Baker said. "He is very talented, though, and I see why he is considered one of the greatest pitchers in the history of Japanese baseball. I understand why there is all the hype around him because he certainly has the talent to succeed at the major-league level."
A few minutes with Reds right-hander Mat Latos:
On being traded by the Padres to the Reds for four players in the offseason: "Honestly, for about a month, I was kind of stunned. Then the more I started thinking about it, the more excited I got. For a team to give up four players for you, they must really want you. Then I saw the moves the Reds were making like signing Ryan Madson to be the closer, and it's obvious we're a team trying to win the (National League Central) this year. It's exciting to be in that kind of a situation, especially after finishing in last place (in the NL West) last year with the Padres.”
On the pressure of the being the guy traded for four players: "I'd be lying if I said I haven't thought of that. I'm sure people in Cincinnati have some high expectations of me, and that's fine. At the same time, I can't put any extra pressure on myself. I really believe that if I go out and pitch the way I can that no one will even think how many guys were in the trade or any of that stuff."
On being traded when it seemed he was a major part of the Padres' rebuilding effort: "I was led to believe that I was going to be a Padre for a long time. That's what the CEO (Jeff Moorad) told me, that's what the general manager (Josh Byrnes) told me, that's what the manager (Bud Black) told me. So it was a big surprise. At first, you kind of feel you like when your girlfriend breaks up with you; you're angry and you're hurt. I'm past that now, especially since spring training started. I'm with a good team and a good group of guys. It hurt, though, and I didn't see it coming at all."
On what he is working on this spring: "Just working hard every day. I'm sure when Roy Halladay pitched his perfect game that he was getting his work in the next day. You can't take a day off in this game if you really want to be good at it. I really believe that."
On his numerous tattoos: "I only have one—and it's not finished yet."
Three observations after spending two days in the Cactus League:
- Money might not buy happiness, but it seems the five-year, $25-million contract Cameron Maybin signed with the Padres bought him a shot of confidence. "I can't even begin to tell you what it means to me for the Padres to say they believe in me," Maybin said. "It's exciting to know someone thinks that much of you."
- Mariners ace Felix Hernandez and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki look like they are already in midseason form. Suzuki appears motivated to regain his stature as one of the game's best hitters after failing to reach 200 hits for the first time in his 11 major-league seasons.
- The smile on Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty's face when asked how the winter was said it all. He believes his team is ready to win the NL Central following an offseason in which he traded for Latos and had Madson fall in his lap.
Scouts' views will start up again next week once a few more exhibition games have been played, but here is an interesting player observation to tide you over. It is from Baker, who played with the Marlins last season, on Florida right fielder Giancarlo Stanton:
He wants to be the best player in the major leagues, and he might just do it. He has only been playing for five years. Imagine what he would have done if he started playing when he was 10 years old? How incredible would he be? It's really scary to think of what he could potentially be. If he does go down as the greatest player in baseball history, I honestly wouldn't be surprised.
In this week's Must Read, Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe writes about how Orioles General Manager Dan Duquette has changed since his last GM gig with the Red Sox 10 years ago.