As Wednesday's 4 p.m. deadline nears in the negotiations between the Texas Rangers and Yu Darvish, the most significant hang-up is reportedly the 25-year-old's request for a five-year contract and the team's preference for a six-year deal, according to Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan. Understandably, Darvish aims to become a free agent as soon as possible so he can field offers from the 29 other clubs (and get away from the heat), while Texas wants to maximize its return on the $51.7 million posting fee that's due if a contract is signed.
The Rangers appear to have the upper hand since Darvish can either take their best offer or return to Japan for less dough, but there's tremendous pressure on the organization to ink the highly touted right-hander, so it's in both parties' best interests to meet somewhere in the middle (perhaps a club option for the sixth year). Sources told Passan that the relationship between the club and Darvish is "strong and respectful," and Passan says the probability of Darvish returning to Japan is "minimal."
Even though agreeing to terms with Darvish greatly improves the Rangers' chances of a rare third-straight World Series appearance this season, their path is also far more difficult given the offseason acquisitions of Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Chris Iannetta by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Friday's big news that the New York Yankees added two significant rotation pieces by trading for Michael Pineda and signing their own former Japanese hurler: free agent Hiroki Kuroda, who turns 37 in February and had a 3.07 ERA and 161 strikeouts last year with the Dodgers. New York is also talking to free agents Carlos Pena and Johnny Damon to fill its opening at designated hitter.
The Angels now feature one of baseball's deepest and best starting rotations with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Wilson. And Pujols and Iannetta, along with the return of Kendrys Morales from a broken leg, give a major boost to a lineup that scored fewer runs last year than Kansas City, Baltimore and Cleveland. The Angels also signed second baseman Howie Kendrick to a four-year, $33.5 million extension.
And while there are legitimate questions about whether Pineda and Kuroda can successfully move from pitcher-friendly ballparks in Seattle and Los Angeles into hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, not to mention the increased media attention that comes with it, New York is unquestionably a better team than it was in 2011 as well.
Pineda, who has ace potential and turns just 23 years old on Wednesday, posted the lowest opponent batting average against right-handed hitters (.184), recorded the fifth-highest average fastball velocity among starting pitchers (94.5 mph) and had the fifth-highest fastball miss percentage among starters (20.4) as a rookie last year.
He's a physical beast at 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds and features a dominating fastball and wicked slider. Pineda's only potential drawbacks are his splits at home (2.92 ERA) compared to the road (4.40 ERA) and second-half collapse, during which he had a 5.12 ERA and 1.38 WHIP.
Although the Mariners landed coveted catcher-DH prospect Jesus Montero in an effort to improve an offense that had the lowest batting average (.233) of any American League team in the DH era, along with pitching prospect Hector Noesi, the deal has been largely scored as a win for New York, which also received 19-year-old Jose Campos -- the "lottery ticket" in the deal, according to ESPN's Keith Law.
The trade triggered two obvious questions that may never be answered: If the Mariners' brass thought so highly of Montero, then why did they back out of a trade last year when he was a part of the Yankees' proposal for Cliff Lee? And why wouldn't Seattle instead move ace Felix Hernandez, who is under club control for two fewer years than Pineda at a considerably higher price ($58 million total) and would have yielded a better and larger package of prospects?
The deal also continued a surprising trend of young, high-upside pitchers finding new homes this offseason, with Oakland trading Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey, San Diego sending Mat Latos to Cincinnati, Arizona parting with Jarrod Parker in the deal for Cahill and the Cubs dealing Andrew Cashner for young first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Gonzalez and the Washington Nationals subsequently agreed to a five-year, $42 million contract with two club options that could raise the value to $65 million.
It's difficult to speculate what the Rangers would have needed to part with for the likes of Pineda, Gonzalez and Latos, and it's unknown whether their former teams had an interest in dealing with Texas. But, unlike Darvish, those three starters have major-league track records of success, albeit for a relatively short period of time. And, unlike Darvish, they cost highly ranked prospects, while Darvish costs only money.
However, payroll flexibility is just as important as holding on to unproven prospects, as far as I'm concerned.
Case in point: Although Texas met with free-agent slugger Prince Fielder on Friday at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas (as originally reported by USA Today's Bob Nightengale), it's believed that the Rangers only view him as Plan B should negotiations with Darvish go sour because they can only afford one of the two. (Although ESPN's Jim Bowden claims the meeting went "extremely well" and that Texas can afford both players.)
This, well, sucks. Even before the World Series had concluded, I was the first to advocate inking Fielder as a replacement for Josh Hamilton, whose contract expires at the end of the year.
I won't rehash my reservations keeping Hamilton long term or my reasons for targeting Fielder, whose physique impressed the Rangers on Friday, according to Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. And I also won't rehash the risks associated with potentially investing more money annually in Darvish than all other hurlers not named CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.
ESPN's Matt Meyers says Texas "might be better off" if a deal between the Rangers and Darvish falls through, and while that scenario seems extremely unlikely, I wholeheartedly agree.
Gimme Fielder and Roy Oswalt, who's also still on the market, instead. Heck, the Rangers are committing at least $51.7 million toward the acquisition of Darvish, which is more than enough to sign Fielder (approximately $23 million annually) and Oswalt (around $8 to $9 million for one year) and would have been enough to pay for Kuroda (one year, $10 million) and closer Ryan Madson (one year, $8.5 million) too. Add on what Darvish could make in the first year of his contract (probably around $12.5 million), and Texas could have also afforded to ink Carlos Beltran, who signed for just two years and $26 million with St. Louis.
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Make no mistake. Adding Darvish improves the Rangers. But he is The Great Unknown, and even Ron Washington knows he's not an opening day starter.
I have the utmost confidence in general manager Jon Daniels and his staff, and I'll be one of Darvish's biggest fans if he's signed as expected. But if adding Darvish and Joe Nathan are the only highlights of the offseason, the Rangers might not have enough to get past a revamped Angels' squad.
And even if they manage to get past the Angels in the AL West (although the additional wild card spot could be an option for either club if the postseason is expanded), the Evil Empire may be too much to handle in the playoffs with arguably the best bullpen trio in baseball (David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, Mariano Rivera), one of the top offenses in baseball (ranked second last year to Boston) and a deep rotation that now features Sabathia, Pineda, Kuroda, Ivan Nova and one from a group including Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia and A.J. Burnett. Top prospects Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are also waiting in the wings.
By signing Darvish and bypassing other proven options, Texas would increase the already palpable pressure on Darvish twofold. If he's not spectacular, if he doesn't emerge quickly as a bona fide ace, if he doesn't put more butts in the seats, the Rangers will be left to ponder what could have been had the team parted with the prospects necessary to land Pineda, Latos or Gonzalez and/or spent their money instead on Fielder and another starter and reliever.