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Transaction Analysis: Rangers, Darvish Agree To Terms

Yu Darvish. Even his name is exciting. A colorful ace with rock star fame, Yu Darvish comes to America with with more fanfare than any Japanese player since Daisuke Matsuzaka. He brings the hype of a first-round draft pick and five consecutive years of sub 2.00 ERAs in a league generally considered to be tougher than Triple-A. Rangers fans should be excited by his presence in their rotation, and baseball fans in general should be excited to see if Darvish can prove he really is one of the world's best pitchers on the biggest stage. 

You should be excited to watch Darvish in the MLB. But should you be so excited that you plant him on your fantasy team?

Briefly: yes.

To be sure, there are risks associated with drafting Japanese ballplayers (or signing them, for that matter); one only needs to look at the track records of most Japanese imports to be wary. Daisuke Matsuzaka was an ace in Japan--this year he may not make the Red Sox rotation. Hideo Nomo had his moments, but was maddeningly inconsistent (I know: I once drafted him two years in a row.)

Differing ballpark dimensions, pitch selections, playing styles and ball types all conspire to make it relatively difficult to translate NBP performance into an MLB equivalent, though our own Mike Axisa evaluates some projections at RotoGraphs. Most of the projections that are out now suggest an ERA in the 3.00s with a strikeout rate of about 8.00 K/9, which would be good but perhaps shy of ace-level. There could be a lot of variance in those projections, however any ERA from the 2.00s to the low 4.00s wouldn't surprise me.

Uncertainty aside, there's a lot to like about Yu Darvish, in real and (more importantly) fantasy baseball. Check out his stats since 2007 here

Many have commented on the durability of Japanese pitchers. The Japanese schedule is shorter and more spread out, so many Japanese pitchers come to the Majors with relatively low innings totals. Darvish, however, has thrown quite a few innings recently, pitching 232 last year and breaking the 200 mark in four of the past five seasons.

For comparison's sake, Matsuzaka broke 200 just twice in eight seasons in Japan, and American prospects never throw so many in the minors. While pitching on a five-day schedule instead of a seven-day may take its toll, Darvish has been pitching with a Major League workload since he was 18. Of course, it could always be his previous overwork that breaks him down, but that strikes me as more of a long-term worry and less of a reason to be scared in 2012. If other owners want to let Dice-K scare them off from Darvish, let that be their loss.

Darvish was a strikeout artist in Japan, averaging over a whiff an inning since 2007 (his age-20 season), including a 10.7 mark last year. He has a power pitcher's arsenal, with a 94-mph fastball that may well translate into Major League strikeouts better than the Swiss-Army assortment that many Japanese pitchers employ. Along with those strikeouts he's employed impeccable control, averaging over four strikeouts per walk in four of the last five years. Last year, he posted a 7.67K/BB. (Note of caution: Matsuzaka had limited his walks effectively in Japan, so control may not be a guarantee.) While last year has the look of a career year, he's young enough (he turns 26 this August) that it might have been just another step forward as a pitcher. 

I'm sure the Rangers took all of this into account when they signed Darvish, but we get to consider something that Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels couldn't: the Rangers themselves. The Rangers are a smart club and they know pitching, having earned some benefit of the doubt with Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson and their willingness to try Neftali Feliz in the rotation. The fact that they spent $111 million on Darvish gives me confidence that I wouldn't have gotten from the Orioles or the Reds making the same decision.

For fantasy purposes, of course, there's another team-factor to consider: the Rangers are a good team with a great offense in a division that includes two weak sisters. They're going to win plenty of games and some of those wins will fall to Darvish, even if he underachieves relative to expectations. While his home park won't do him any favors, the Seattle and Oakland offenses will.

There are no minor league comparables for Yu Darvish, as any pitcher in the Western Hemisphere with his talent would have been in the Majors long ago, but Eno Sarris of Fangraphs drew up a list of similar Major Leaguers last month. He suggests that Johnny Cueto makes an appropriate floor for Darvish's value and Jordan Zimmermann a rough median projection. Felix Hernandez provides a ceiling. Which seems to say that he'll probably be at least very good -- a No. 2 starter, for a good team -- his potential is among the best in baseball. Even Johnny Cueto has fantasy value, and he'd have even more with the Rangers.

Right now, Darvish's ADP is 124.14 -- appropriately, just two spots ahead of Zimmermann (ironically, Cueto is being drafted about a round earlier.) This strikes me as a decent prediction of where he'll be taken in a lot of drafts, as the 10th and 11th rounds are good times to take the top prospect off the board, but I wouldn't be afraid to take him a round or two early. I wouldn't make him as my ace, but taking him as a second or third SP would give your staff a lot of upside. Don't get me wrong, Darvish is far from a sure thing, but I've found that playing it safe is a good way to finish in the middle of the pack; winning teams make calculated risks, and Darvish looks like a risk worth taking.

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