The first Spring Training game is just a day away (Florida Seminoles vs. Philadelphia Phillies, Wednesday at 1:05pm), so there is no better time to discuss the new, hot fantasy baseball player prospects. This series on prospects will cover a wide range of players as well as positions. We’ll cover sleepers and some of the more obvious stars of the future.
The next prospect in the series is highly touted Japanese import Yu Darvish, signed by the Texas Rangers. Darvish is attracting attention as a bigger and better version of Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox, who entered the Majors on a tidal wave up hype.
We’ve seen a lot of pitchers come from Japan with the accolades of first dominating on the western side of the Pacific with intentions of doing the same on the eastern side. Darvish will forever be linked to the likes of Matsuzaka, Hideo Nomo, Kei Igawa, Kaz Ishii and Hideki Irabu until he proves he is not like them; that he can succeed long term.
The Rangers paid $112 million for Darvish for a reason. He is the total package, and most importantly, Nolan Ryan is on board. It gives some comfort in the belief Darvish can succeed when one of the greatest pitchers of all time feels comfortable taking the risk.
The adjustment to Major League Baseball is often quite difficult for Japanese pitchers. The biggest problem with the change is a small one: the ball. The MLB baseball is slightly bigger and makes gripping a little tougher for someone used to throwing a smaller ball. Japanese pitchers usually pitch once every seven days, but have to adjust to throwing once every five days. This leads to problems with conditioning.
The cultural difference is always a concern. Can players from another culture come to the United States and adapt to the way of life both at and away from the ballpark? The Rangers seem to have that one covered by employing two other natives of Osaka, Japan, Koji Uehara and Yoshinori Tateyama, to be Darvish’s designated best friends.
Darvish is 25 years old and is listed as 6’5” and 215 pounds. He has an outstanding repertoire of six pitches: three fastballs, two sliders and a curveball. He tops out around 96 mph, but his curveball can go as low as 65 mph. More than a 30 mph differential in his pitches is unheard of, showing that he is a unique talent.
His release is a lot more compact and traditional than most Japanese pitchers. He hides the ball very well until the last moment, a big reason for his tremendous strikeout rate. Darvish is not afraid to pitch inside and will challenge hitters and he has the ability to constantly jam hitters with the sick movement on his breaking balls. He will probably fool many Major Leaguers with that pitch.
Darvish has averaged 10 complete games a season over the last four years, but that was as part of a six-man rotation. With the change to a five-man rotation, expect fewer complete games, but he will have no problem piling up 200 innings this season. The arm action could lead to elbow problems someday, so watch him closely.
What remains to be seen is how his skills will translate to the Majors. Japanese hitters tend to be less selective than MLB hitters, with the result being that Japanese pitchers may seem to nibble the corners when they come to the States, since they are used to being able to get batters to chase balls out of the zone. With such a wide repertoire of pitches, Darvish doesn’t appear to have a weakness against lefties.
Darvish is making an enormous leap in terms of quality of competition. Darvish was excellent at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, closing out the final two games against the U.S. and Korea, but he only tossed 13.0 innings in the tournament, compiling a 2.08 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 20 Ks. In 2012, he’ll pitch in an extremely hitter-friendly home park, in the DH league. That streak of sub-2.00 ERAs is about to end.
Two players who will be good comparisons for Darvish are Zack Greinke and Matt Garza. A fair projection is 3.60 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 170 strikeouts, but a lot can change in a short amount of time. As it will likely take hitters a few months to gauge his skill set, he should be very strong at the beginning of the season.
Though he will always be compared to Matsuzaka, Darvish is unlike Dice-K in that he has thrown far fewer innings for his age. He hasn’t been worked as hard and is more likely to hold up physically. Dice-K went 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA and 355 strikeouts in his first two seasons, which is a pretty good measuring stick for Darvish.
Overall, expect better stats with upside than Matsuzaka or other Japanese pitchers produced in their first years in the Majors. However, be cautious not to overpay for his services because there are certainly risks involved.