Darvish creates widespread impact on Rangers
Should Texas sign Japanese star, rotation decision to follow
ARLINGTON -- The clock is ticking, but the Rangers are fully committed. Thirty days from now, they expect to have Japanese star pitcher Yu Darvish under contract after winning the rights to negotiate Monday following a record $51.7 million bid.The Rangers are optimistic they can add to their rotation a 25-year-old right-hander who was 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA and 276 strikeouts in 28 games (232 innings) for the Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2011. It may go down to the final day, but Texas plans on getting it done. It will be a significant contract that will impact the club in a significant number of ways. The risk: The Rangers obviously feel Darvish will have a much bigger impact than other Japanese pitchers who fell short of expectations. Hideki Irabu was the "Japanese Nolan Ryan" who went 15-10 with a 3.04 ERA and 239 strikeouts at age 25 for the Chiba Lotte Marines. But Irabu, who was never much into conditioning, mustered only a couple of average seasons for the Yankees. Daisuke Matsuzaka left Japan after going 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA at age 25 in 2006 for the Seibu Lions. He won 33 games in his first two seasons for the Red Sox but is 16-15 with a 5.03 ERA over the past three years and is coming off Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. Darvish has averaged 204 innings and 216 strikeouts over the past five years. He has finished with an ERA under 2.00 in each of those seasons, kept his walk totals low and has had no injury problems. The workload will be higher in the Major Leagues, where he will be expected to pitch every fifth day rather than once a week. There is also the world-famous heat in Arlington. Darvish's ability to meet the physical demands has to be considered an unknown. The Rangers are hoping to get a front-of-the-rotation starter who will have sustained success over a five- to six-year period. Japanese pitchers have had a hard time doing that in the Major Leagues. The rotation: Right now, the Rangers have a rotation of Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz. They have Scott Feldman in reserve with top prospects Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez getting close to being Major League ready. Somebody will eventually have to go, while Feldman, Perez and Ramirez just dropped a notch in the depth chart. Feliz, with his immense talent, has been the Rangers' closer the past two years. Texas already signed Joe Nathan to be the closer and is thus committed to Feliz in the rotation. The Rangers are committed to Holland being in the rotation as well. They are actively negotiating a five-year contract extension with him, and it's not so that he can be a middle reliever. Ogando was a setup reliever in 2010 and a starter in '11, going 13-8 with a 3.51 ERA in 169 innings. He pitched effectively as a reliever in the playoffs, leading to suggestions he could slide easily back into the bullpen next season. But the Rangers are reluctant to undo all the work Ogando did in building up as a starter in 2010. They also made it clear when pursuing C.J. Wilson that they still regarded Ogando as a starter. Harrison was 14-9 with a 3.39 ERA in 185 innings this past season and can't be a free agent until after the 2014 season. Considering the interest in Oakland left-hander Gio Gonzalez, Harrison could have high value on the trade market. Lewis is a free agent after this coming season and is more than four years older than the next-oldest starter. He is not as overpowering as the other four, but he is the most experienced and the most successful when it comes to postseason play. There would be trade interest in Lewis, although probably not as much as Harrison. Feldman will likely be back in middle relief. Perez and Ramirez would probably start the season at Triple-A and may find that the bullpen is the only way to at least initially break into the Major Leagues. The payroll: The Rangers still have seven arbitration cases ahead of them, as well as lengthy negotiations with Darvish's representatives. Taking all things into consideration, they could have a payroll that pushes the $130 million mark. Texas would still be safely under the $178 million competitive tax threshold, but the payroll is only going to keep soaring if the Rangers are intent on keeping their "core" together over the next several years. A hefty contract for Darvish will make that increasingly difficult. Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Lewis are free agents after this season. Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Michael Young and David Murphy hit the market after the 2013 season. The bullpen has to be rebuilt annually. If the Rangers remain committed toward spending their financial resources on pitching while maintaining a semblance of financial flexibility, some of their high-priced position players may be moving on in the next couple of years. Other moves: There is no guarantee that Darvish is going to sign with the Rangers. He may not like their offer, he may not be thrilled about pitching in intense heat or he may prefer to return to Japan until 2014, when he can come over as an unrestricted free agent. If so, the Rangers keep their $51.7 million posting fee and are free to spend it in other areas. The risk is that they may find their options limited at the end of the 30-day period. The Rangers had been interested in Gonzalez and reliever Andrew Bailey, also from the A's, and have shown interest in the past in Cubs pitcher Matt Garza. Trade discussions involving those pitchers or any others of interest to the Rangers will likely be put off until Darvish's situation is resolved. Plus, if other teams fill their rotations, it could lessen the value on any starter the Rangers choose to trade. There was also the possibility -- remote or otherwise -- that Texas could have jumped in on free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder. That's almost certainly no longer the case, for now. The Rangers still have to finish putting their team together. They still want to reinforce their bullpen, most likely by completing negotiations with free-agent left-hander Darren Oliver. They also need to add some depth at utility infielder, first base and center field. None of those moves should bust the payroll, but the Rangers still have other business to attend to before the offseason is over. Darvish is the most pressing because that impact could be widespread.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.