MLB scouts doing due diligence on Fighters’ Darvish

by and

Staff Writers

The press box at QVC Marine Field isn’t exactly state-of-the-art. Upfront are three sections of long desks topped with aging, faded wood looking out onto the field from ground level, behind a net and tinted glass. The rear resembles a school cafeteria, with an old television resting on a filing cabinet and another mounted on the ceiling.

Few would confuse it with the facilities in the 30 MLB ballparks.

Still, there was a definite MLB vibe in the air at the windswept stadium on Wednesday.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham ace Yu Darvish was pitching, and a traveling caravan of MLB scouts hadn’t just followed him, their ranks had swelled. Twenty-four assorted officials — from 13 teams — including Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos were in the house for a closer look, especially with Darvish making a rare start outdoors.

“I’m doing my homework,” Anthopoulos said in an interview with MLB.com. “If I go see guys for the Draft . . . it doesn’t mean that we draft those players, or we have them high on our list. But I go see them, I want to have as much information as we can on all players.

“But there’s no question, he’s the reason that I went. I can sit here and [joke], say I went there to experience the culture, or build relationships. But if he hadn’t pitched I wouldn’t have gone, at least not in 2011.”

Darvish gave them glimpses of what they came for, striking out nine and allowing one run over eight innings in the Fighters’ 6-1 win over the Chiba Lotte Marines.

“He’s ready,” one AL scout said when asked if Darvish could pitch in the majors. “He’s already an ace on some staffs. Probably a solid No. 3 on most. He might even make sense as a closer if certain pitching-rich teams land him.”

For any team to land him any time soon, the Fighters would have to post him. He won’t reach international free agency until at least the middle of 2014. So far, the team has given few hints concerning their plans and Darvish rarely broaches the subject.

If he does make the move in the future, one concern is how he would handle the rigors of an MLB season.

“It looks like he’s put on some weight and started to fill out a little bit,” said one major league scout. “He’s a strong guy, so I think he’ll be fine going on five days’ rest. It will take some adjusting, but I think he’ll be fine.”

While NPB teams usually employ six-man rotations, most, if not all, MLB squads use a five-man rotation, a big adjustment for Japanese starters. Darvish has, however, been throwing for the Fighters on five days’ rest lately.

“I don’t like six days’ rest because it’s too much of a layoff and I tend to think too much in between (starts),” Darvish said Wednesday. “So it’s better for me to pitch more often. I say, even if it’s three days’ rest or four days’ rest, go ahead and use me that way.”

He looked no worse for wear Wednesday, challenging the Marines with fastballs and confusing them with an array of off-speed pitches.

“He has tremendous command with his secondary pitches, and this year he’s much more aggressive with the fastball, and I like that,” one MLB scout said.

In his seventh year as a professional, Darvish is 91-36 with a 2.04 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. So far this season, Darvish is 16-4 with a 1.54 ERA. Through 21 starts, he has 206 strikeouts, marking his fourth season with at least 200.

Then again, few question his talent. But, as the AL scout warns, it takes more than talent to survive in the big leagues.

“Major League Baseball will overwhelm him the way it has overwhelmed every NPB player to go over,” he said. “There’s no preparing for the level of competition, the schedule and the expectations, I don’t care who you are.

“Darvish is way above it all in Japan. He knows it, and I think he loves it. Watching him on the field and listening to him with the press, nothing he has done or said tells me that he’s particularly concerned with that.

“I see early success like many others, but the league will catch up and wear him down. The challenge then, is how to overcome more failure and difficulty than he has ever faced in Japan.”

Even if Darvish is posted in the next few years the first challenge is signing him.

The posting system’s flaws were laid bare this past winter when the Oakland A’s’ courtship of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ Hisashi Iwakuma fizzled.

Darvish recently hired agents Don Nomura, formerly Iwakuma’s agent, and Arn Tellem, but the market for Japanese pitchers has taken a hit. Kei Igawa’s struggles with the New York Yankees haven’t helped and few look back favorably at the Boston Red Sox’s $103.11 million investment — $51.11 million posting fee and six-year $52 million-contract — in Daisuke Matsuzaka.

“Better stuff, better body, better investment,” an AL scout said when comparing Darvish to Matsuzaka. “Matsuzaka was purchased in 2006-07, a relative heyday for big contracts. Obviously, we’re in a global financial crisis now. I don’t think it would be a knock on Darvish if he comes in at, or just below, Matsuzaka’s package. But the man is a better player than Matsuzaka.”

Still, he had words of caution.

“He’s one hell of a pitcher,” the scout said. “But there’s no red carpet to a major league mound. He’ll have to earn everything he’s already earned in his own world over here.”