It’s widely accepted that the Washington Nationals are in the market this off-season for a No. 3 starter and a center fielder, preferably one that possesses a high enough OBP to hit in the lead-off spot. Thus far, we’ve seen a bunch of free agent pitchers that could have fit the bill sign elsewhere, and the market for center fielders is slim, indeed.
Could the Nats turn their attention overseas to fill both slots?
The big name from Japan this winter is pitcher Yu Darvish, 25, who has put up otherworldly stats against mostly high Double-A/Triple A competition in the Japanese National League. Last season, Darvish dominated his possibly final season in Japan with an 18-6 record, 10 complete games, six shutouts, a 1.44 ERA, 276 K’s (10.71 K/9) and 36 BB (1.40 BB/9) in 28 starts and 232.0 IP for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Them’s some crazy numbers.
Darvish, under the process the Japanese major league uses to allow their players to become free agents, was posted by the Fighters last Thursday, and any MLB team that wishes to have the rights to negotiate with the righty has until the middle of this week to submit their bid. After the posting bids are processed, the team that won the bid then has 30 days to negotiate a contract. If the posting team doesn’t receive what it thinks is an appropriate bid, they can take the player off the market.
The last two prominent Japanese pitchers that went through the posting process, Kei Igawa and Diasuke Matsuzaka, garnered posting fees of $26 million and $51 million respectively. Darvish should command closer to Matsuzaka than Igawa. Then the team that wins the bid has to negotiate a contract on top of that. It’s a dicey proposition (all puns included) bidding on a Japanese player, with their gaudy stats and mysterious allure. Neither Igawa nor Matsuzaka flourished — as their Japanese record might have indicated — once they got over to the states.
The Nats have scouted Darvish intensely and figured to be one of the MLB teams that submitted a posting bid, but only GM Mike Rizzo (and his owners) know for sure.
Today, we found out that the Tokyo Yakult Swallows submitted posting paperwork on their center fielder, Norichika Aoki. Aoki has an impressive pedigree in his own right, and some have called him the best hitting prospect in Japan since Ichiro Suzuki. Aoki, 29, is a three-time Central League batting champion, a six-time Gold Glove winner and owns a lifetime .329 batting average in eight seasons. He hits left and throws right, and has posted some decent stolen base numbers in the past, though he stole just eight (against three caught stealing) last season.
The posing fee on Aoki will be considerably less than that for Darvish, but it could still climb as high as $10 million for just the negotiating rights.
The free agent list for center fielders is short, and starts with Coco Crisp. But Crisp is 32 and has played more than 139 games just twice in his 10-year career. He led the American League in steals this past season with 49 in 136 games, but hit just .264/.314/.379. The Nats have long been rumored to be in on Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton should he become available for trade, but the 27-year old is even less of an ideal lead-off hitter than Crisp, and would be expensive in terms of players needed to acquire the toolsy outfielder.
All Aoki and Darvish would cost is money. Could they be the solutions to the Nats two biggest off-season problems? We’ll find out in the next week which MLB won the rights to negotiate with both players. But will their talent translate to the Major Leagues? We won’t know that answer for a while, but history says that it’s a risky proposition. For every Ichiro there seems to be a dozen Kei Igawas. Signing one of these Japanese imports is risky enough. Can the Nats afford — monetarily and playing time-wise — to take a chance on both?