In their perpetual quest to acquire more pitching, the Nationals are likely to give some serious consideration to Yu Darvish, the latest Japanese sensation who may announce in the next few weeks he's coming to the United States.
General manager Mike Rizzo acknowledged yesterday during a conference call with beat reporters that members of the Nationals' international scouting organization saw Darvish pitch multiple times this year. Rizzo himself has scouted Darvish in person, though not in the last two seasons.
The process for acquiring top Japanese players is a complicated one. The player must first be posted by his current team, in this case the Nippon-Ham Fighters. Any major-league club interested in signing Darvish will submit a blind bid to Nippon-Ham, just for the right to negotiate with him. Once the top bidder is determined, it's up to that team and Darvish to work out a contract.
Suffice it to say, it's going to cost a pretty penny to land the right-hander. Darvish is just as hyped (if not more so) than Daisuke Matsuzaka, who in 2007 went to Boston after the Red Sox paid out a 51 million posting fee to the Seibu Lions and then a six-year, 52 million contract to the pitcher who supposedly threw the mysterious gyroball.
How'd that all work out for the Red Sox? Not as well as hoped. Though he won 33 games over his first two seasons and notched a 2.90 ERA in 2008, Dice-K hasn't come close to duplicating those numbers since. In 105 career starts, he's 49-30 with a 4.25 ERA and a gargantuan walk rate. He's also currently recovering from Tommy John surgery. Think Boston is excited to be stuck with him for another year at 10 million?
Now, it's certainly not fair to assume Darvish will suffer the same fate as Matsuzaka. By all accounts, he's a fantastic pitcher who this season went 17-6 with a 1.49 ERA and a mighty impressive 261-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
But it's impossible to extrapolate how Darvish will perform in the major leagues based on how he has performed in Japan. And history actually suggests he won't be worth nearly as much money as he's likely to get.
The list of Japanese pitchers who have enjoyed significant success in America is extremely limited. Hideo Nomo (123-109, 4.24 ERA in 318 career starts) is the only Japanese-born pitcher to win more than 51 games or make more than 200 starts in the big leagues. (You'll never guess who's second on both of those lists: ex-National Tomo Ohka, who went 51-68 with 4.26 ERA in 178 career starts.)
Only six Japanese-born pitchers have made more than 100 starts in the majors: Nomo, Ohka, Masato Yoshii, Hiroki Kuroda, Matsuzaka and Kaz Ishii. Of that group, only Kuroda (3.45) owns a career ERA under 4.24.
Will Darvish buck that trend and become an American star? Perhaps. But he'd be doing something none of his fellow countrymen has ever done before. And he'd be making a whole lot of money.
This is the dilemma the Nationals will face in the coming weeks. They're determined to add another quality starter to a rotation that already includes Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan and is likely to also include Chien-Ming Wang (himself a cautionary tale from East Asia).
Is Darvish worth the risk? History suggests the answer is no.