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The 2011 Boston Red Sox were in distress: the team missed the playoffs, had key free agents departing with no clear answers on the farm, and a starting rotation that while hyped at the start of the season, with the addition of a good Josh Beckett, finished by under-performing. In 2006 this solution included a young potential ace from Japan, fresh off an MVP award for carrying Team Japan to the championship of the first ever World Baseball Classic.
This year, the last piece of the puzzle in the Red Sox most difficult offseason in a long time may be the trickiest: bidding on Yu Darvish, should he become available. Matsuzaka did not work out the way anyone had expected, but should the team “learn” from that experience and avoid the next pitcher to journey from Japan to America? Absolutely not. Pitchers are always risky, but when a team strikes the right guy, the results often speak for themselves.
Because he is not yet a free agent, Yu Darvish must be posted by his Japanese team, the Nippon-Ham Fighters, in order to pitch in the Major Leagues for the 2012 season. Like Daisuke Matsuzaka, this means teams that are interested in acquiring his services must first win a blind bid and then proceed to sign the righthander to a contract on top of that. However, not all of this combined amount is part of the payroll. When the Red Sox won the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka it cost a pretty penny: $51.1 million dollars. Although his contract and the posting fee totaled over $100 million dollars, Matsuzaka was not showing up as an approximately $16 million player: only his contract, a more reasonable six years and $52 million dollars, is included in the total team salary.
The posting fee is essentially a check from John Henry to the corresponding team in Japan. Just like buying a soccer team, a race car, or whatever else a billionaire wants to invest in, the posting fee is a small price to pay when it can be spent from funds outside the Major League operating payroll. Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan hears that the posting fee for Yu Darvish will likely exceed $30 million, even if it is lower than the $51.1 million paid to negotiate with Matsuzaka. Teams could be scared off after Matsuzaka’s disappointing performance in the American League. Or perhaps $30 million may be closer to the true price to acquire negotiation rights; no one was reporting a bid anywhere close to the Red Sox winning amount last time around.
The winning bidder is the only negotiator, free from the effect of the “mystery team” and the Japanese player, should he not make a deal, would have to return to Japan and wait to be posted again in a year or reach free agency. Fifty million dollars, when not part of the payroll, is not a factor that will keep a business like the Boston Red Sox, combined with NESN and Fenway Sports Group income, from making an investment that could continue to build the brand in Asia. Taken in concert with the new CBA limiting the signing budget for amateur players, a strong relationship with Japanese league could prove to be more important in coming years.
Although there has been some discussion that Darvish’s pending divorce could hinder the posting process, as his soon-to-be ex-wife would like to get a piece of his Major League payday on her way out, it is not a foregone conclusion that it will. We need to keep in mind the windfall to his current team for selling the rights to their ace as well: the Fighters will likely do everything they can to help Darvish resolve his personal issues so he can join MLB and they can receive financial compensation for his departure. Should they fail to post their ace, he will simply walk away as a free agent next year.
Yu Darvish has been incredible during his young career. This past season he threw 232 innings of 1.44 ERA dominance. His WHIP was a shiny 0.83 and the righthander compiled an amazing 276:36 strikeout to walk ratio. Even with the caveat that Japanese baseball is not equivalent to Major League Baseball, these numbers cannot be ignored. While in Japanese professional baseball, Matsuzaka never recorded a an ERA under 2.00; Darvish has done this five years running. Matsuzaka was certainly a great pitcher in Japan, but following in his wake is a truly awesome force.
One advantage Darvish has over Matsuzaka is height: while Dice-K registers at six feet tall, Darvish is 6’5” which puts him in the size range of many successful MLB pitchers. It is possible that the extra inches will allow Darvish’s offerings to play more like they have in his home country when he crosses the Pacific and has to face better hitters.
The biggest struggle for the Red Sox the past few seasons has been the starting rotation. In both 2010 and 2011 the rotation was much better on paper than in reality. With John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka sidelined for the 2012 season the Red Sox are left with Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz. While this group is certainly enough to carry the team when backed up by a couple solid back-of-the-rotation guys, as they say, you can never have too much pitching.
C.J. Wilson is likely to command a five or six year deal for approximately $100 million, all of it as payroll, and require the team the signs him to give up a draft pick. The lower-level free agents like Mark Buehrle are unlikely to be bargains themselves. Randy Wolf, as veteran lefty, signed a three year deal with the Brewers for just under $30 million dollars a couple years ago – $10 million per year isn’t that unrealistic for a back-end or mid-level guy.
The Red Sox ownership group has the money to pay the Nippon-Ham Fighters for Darvish’s rights. They made a commitment to build up their presence in Japan when they signed Matsuzaka and this is the next logical step. If other teams are scared to invest because of Matsuzaka that’s all the more reason for the Sox to jump in.