So, the Rangers have won the rights to Yu Darvish, with a bid of $51.7 million. They now have 30 days to negotiate a deal with Darvish. I expect that on January 18, 2012, there will be a fair amount of angst over the fact that Darvish hasn't signed, with people tweeting that Darvish is prepared to go back to Japan if he doesn't get what he wants, columnists writing that the Rangers may not be able to sign him, and similar drama.
And then he'll sign at the 11th hour, and all the drama will have been for naught, and we'll move forward.
So let's assume now that Darvish signs. That raises several questions...
Where does Yu Darvish slot into the rotation?
I don't know that we can say definitively at this point that Yu Darvish would be the team's Opening Day starter...in fact, at this point, were I to guess as to who I think the Opening Day starter will be, I might say Colby Lewis, rather than Darvish. This isn't a reflection of Darvish's talent, but rather, an acknowledgement of the fact that Darvish is coming to a new country, pitching in a new league, and will be the subject of an immense amount of focus and attention. I don't think it would be unreasonable for the Rangers to decide he'll pitch Game 2 or Game 3 of the regular season, giving him a chance to get a little more acclimated and experience a regular season game on the bench before being thrust out there on the mound.
That being said, the Rangers don't make the sort of financial commitment that Darvish requires if they don't think he's a legit number one. The Rangers are acquiring Darvish with the idea that he'll be that ever-elusive ace, the guy who would pitch Game One of a playoff series. He may pitch Opening Day, he may pitch Game 2 on Saturday, or Game 3 on Sunday (and who knows...from a marketing perspective, the Rangers may prefer him going on Game 3, since he'll generate more buzz and more ticket sales, and the first two games are likely to be sellouts anyway).
But he's joining the team to be the #1 starter.
Who gets bumped from the rotation to make room for Darvish?
Good question. Marc Normandin examines the issue at SBN Baseball this morning, and narrows it down to Matt Harrison or Alexi Ogando, who I think are viewed as the most likely candidates to lose their rotation spots.
I think there are three likely scenarios: either Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, or Derek Holland get traded, Alexi Ogando gets sent back to the bullpen, or Neftali Feliz goes to the minors to work on transitioning back to a starting pitcher.
Taking the last one first, Feliz to AAA would seem to be the least likely of those scenarios to come to pass. In a theoretical world, it probably makes a lot of sense, since Feliz hasn't started regularly since early in the 2009 season, and letting him spend the first half of the season getting used to the heavier workload and working on his offspeed pitches could make him better equipped to perform going forward, along with potentially postponing his free agency eligibility until after 2016.
On the other hand, we're talking about real people here...Feliz was supposedly already very affected by his 9th inning blown save in Game 6 of the World Series, he's a former Rookie of the Year and one of your best pitchers, and sending him down to the minors could deal a blow to his psyche and send a bad message to the rest of the club. It would be difficult, from a p.r. standpoint (both with the fans and the players), to send Feliz out.
Ogando back to the pen is an intriguing option. His repertoire is more reliever-like than starter-like...according to Pitch f/x, Ogando threw his fastball and slider a combined 95.7% of the time in 2011, making him, essentially, a two pitch pitcher. He seems to profile as the type of pitcher who is better out of the pen than as a starter. And while he had a successful season in 2011 as a starting pitcher, he slumped in the second half of the season, losing command and seemingly wearing down as the year went on. There's also questions about his mechanics, and whether his body can hold up to the wear and tear of starting every fifth day season after season.
Then there's the trade option. Lewis has one year left before he can become a free agent, and given that he's owed just $3.25 million for 2012, he would be an attractive trade target for a team looking for a cheap, reliable veteran starter for their rotation. On the other hand, dealing Lewis would mean going with three pitchers (Holland, Harrison and Ogando) entering their second full season as major league starters, and two pitchers (Feliz and Darvish) who have never started a major league game. I suspect the Rangers are going to want Lewis's veteran presence in the rotation.
Holland and Harrison are in similar situations...Harrison is arbitration eligible and is under team control for just three years, while Holland is not arb-eligible and has four years of team control remaining, but they are both pitchers who profile as solid mid-rotation starters, and who now have experience performing in playoff races and in the postseason. When you look at the type of return Trevor Cahill and Mat Latos have generated, you have to wonder if the Rangers might not quietly be shopping Harrison or Holland, seeing if a team is willing to give up a substantial prospect package for one of the Rangers' spare starters.
At this point, my guess is that Ogando goes back to the bullpen, where he joins Joe Nathan, Mike Adams, Mark Lowe, and Koji Uehara as part of one of the deepest and most potent bullpens in baseball. But I also suspect that Ogando will work as a starter this spring, and will be ready and prepared to be in the Opening Day rotation if another starter goes down.
How much better does this make the Rangers?
Richard Durrett, at the ESPN Dallas blog, summarizes and excerpts a piece by Dan Szymborski behind the ESPN paywall regarding what ZiPS thinks of Darvish. In essence, ZiPS pegs Darvish as roughly a 4.5 WAR pitcher for each of the next five years. That's better than what anyone currently in the Ranger rotation likely projects to, but it is also a downgrade from the 5.9 fWAR C.J. Wilson gave the Rangers last season.
The problem, however, as Szymborski points out, is that there's so little data about pitchers transitioning from Japan to the U.S. that it is much harder to project how a Japanese pitcher will perform going forward, compared to a pitcher already playing in the States, be it in the majors or in the minors. There's a certain amount of culture shock involved, with players leaving the country they've lived in all their life to come to a foreign country with a strange language and different customs. Some players can handle that better than others.
Darvish is a rock star in Japan -- Kevin Goldstein says he is a bigger star in Japan than any athlete in America -- and there seems to be a sense that his personality and ability to deal with the limelight will allow him to make the adjustment better than some other pitchers who have tried to make the transition.
The Rangers clearly think that Darvish can be a 5-7 WAR pitcher going forward, and it wouldn't shock me if he performed at that level. If that's the case, the Rangers have made a significant upgrade to their rotation, and re-established themselves as the favorites in the A.L. West.