Darvish’s ascent could put strain on Fighters’ wallets



Among the NPB’s highest-paid players, Yu Darvish is somewhat of a rarity.

Entering just his sixth season, Darvish is the 11th highest-paid player in the NPB and ninth among Japanese players. Making an estimated ¥330 million this year, Darvish is the youngest player in NPB history to make more than ¥300 million in a season.

Which makes one wonder — how long can the Fighters afford him?

In Japanese baseball, it’s usually only after years of service when the really big contracts start rolling in. Among the top earners entering the 2010 season, the 12 highest paid are a who’s who of veteran players.

With the exception of Yomiuri Giants slugger Lee Seung Yeop, every player making as much or more than Darvish is entering at least his 10th season.

Take out foreign players, and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks pitcher Toshiya Sugiuchi, entering his ninth year, is the only other player among the top 12 earners clocking in at fewer than 10 seasons.

Chunichi Dragons closer Hitoki Iwase is the highest paid pitcher and is set to earn ¥430 million in 2010. Iwase is entering his 12th season.

Darvish’s quick rise comes as no surprise when looking at his numbers. He’s been worth every penny — and maybe more — early in his career.

In five seasons, Darvish is 63-24 with a 2.20 ERA and 752 strikeouts. The hard-throwing righty has posted at least 15 wins and an ERA under 2.00 in each of the past three seasons.

Darvish has also helped lead the Fighters to three appearances in the Japan Series (resulting in one title), collected two PL MVP prizes and won a Sawamura Award.

At 23, Darvish could very well continue to put up gaudy numbers for the next few years, assuming he stays healthy.

But how high is the ceiling for the Fighters? A healthy Darvish is arguably the best pitcher in Japan, and he’ll likely want to be paid as such.

If he continues to produce at current levels or better, does Nippon Ham acquiesce and open its wallet — or post him and cash in on rampant interest from major league teams?

The Seibu Lions faced a similar situation with ace Daisuke Matsuzaka following the 2006 season. Matsuzaka was 108-60 with a 2.95 ERA in eight years with the Lions. Making ¥330 million, he was 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA in 2006 and, as with Darvish, major league teams were highly interested.

The Lions opted to post Matsuzaka after that season, pocketing the $51.1 million posting fee ponied up by the Boston Red Sox.

But Dice-K was an eighth-year player with free-agency on the horizon. There are no such worries with Darvish yet, as the threat of losing him for nothing is still way off.

There has to be, however, a plan in place to keep Darvish’s potential value as high as possible if eventually posting him is in the works, or if there’s a plan to find a way — and the money — to convince him to stay.

The Sapporo-based franchise isn’t a club that generally plays fast and loose with its money. Much of the payroll has been basically tied up in Darvish and Atsunori Inaba over the past three years, with the team getting great value out of its supporting cast.

Still, one has to wonder — should it come down to it — if the Nippon Ham coffers are deep enough to hang on to its ace and happily go forward.