Count Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto among those who didn’t wince during Yu Darvish’s cringe-worthy efforts in the World Series.
Darvish started Game 2 for the Dodgers and couldn’t make it to the third inning. He fared no better in Game 7, when the Astros pounced on the right-hander for two runs in the first and three more in the second, turning the most anticipated night of the baseball season into an anticlimactic dud.
So how do Darvish’s struggles relate to the Mariners? Here’s how: At 31, he ranks as the most intriguing of a generally middling class of free-agent pitchers. If the four-time All-Star doesn’t resemble a victim of stage fright in the finale, Darvish is commanding an absurdly expensive contract.
He’ll still enjoy a lucrative payday, but the fact he saved the two shortest outings of his big-league career for baseball’s ultimate stage drove his price-tag down to a number that could be amenable for the Mariners.
During his postseason wrap-up press conference last month at Safeco Field, Dipoto suggested the Mariners will not be overly aggressive in their search of supplements for a patchwork rotation that failed to produce a single pitcher with enough innings to qualify for the A.L. ERA title.
“You can only shop for what’s in the store,” Dipoto said of addressing the club’s most obvious weakness. “Do we need more? Yes. Is more available? I don’t know. We’re going to see what we can do in that regard and I will answer that question the same way for virtually every team in baseball not named the Cleveland Indians. Everybody needs it.”
A pair of desultory starts in the World Series should not discourage Dipoto from pursuing Darvish, who has recuperated from the Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2015 season.
As for the curious flame out in the World Series, broadcast analyst Eduardo Perez offered a reasonable explanation: Darvish was tipping his pitches.
“His right hand, every time he’s going to throw the fastball, he puts it in the glove and it never moves, because he already has the grip,” Perez said on ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” show last week. “But every time he’s going to the slider, you see a little bit of movement. That’s all you need.”
If the free-agent pitching market finds Dipoto uncharacteristically tepid, there’s a reason. A year ago, he invested $6.85-million for one season out of starter Drew Smyly. Suffering what was first described as a “soggy elbow” in spring training, Smyly ended up throwing as many pitches for the 2017 Mariners as you and I and Meryl Streep threw for the 2017 Mariners.
But just because Smyly was shut down with elbow problems likely linked to his participation in the World Baseball Classic does not justify a “Bah, Humbug” attitude toward Darvish. Between four-plus years with the Rangers and the two, more recent, months he spent with the Dodgers, he’s averaging a 15-11 record, a 3.42 ERA, and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
On those occasions he’s not foreshadowing the pitches he’s throwing to the already imposing hitters in the Astros lineup, Darvish is a B-plus starter in an era, as Dipoto put it, when everybody but the Cleveland Indians craves more starters.
Aside from the immediate benefits, there’d be some long-term consequences in acquiring Darvish, and now we’re getting to the heart of the artichoke. He’s a close friend of Shohei Otani, Japan’s version of the young Babe Ruth and the most coveted international prospect in baseball history.
Otani’s status for a 2018 transition to America is complicated — it involves eight-figure posting rights with the Nippon-Ham Fighters, and Otani having to settle for a relatively modest rookie contract of seven figures — and there’s speculation his much-awaited MLB debut is on hold.
A can of worms, basically, but we know this much: In the next year or two, Shohei Otani will be throwing 100 mph on the mound, and hitting 450-foot home runs at the plate, for a team at least 16 time zones removed from Japan.
The Mariners have deep roots across the ocean, and feel free to presume Otani is well familiar with such former Seattle stars as Ichiro Suzuki, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Hisashi Iwakuma.
And then there’s Darvish, whose genial nature and consistent humility has made him a something of a big brother to Otani, a former Nippon-Ham Fighers teammate. The chances of the Mariners luring Otani to Seattle increase exponentially if Darvish is in town.
Think of it as a package deal: A six-year contract in the neighborhood of $160-million for a 15-game winner who wields considerable sway in the destination of a power-pitching, power-hitting phenom.
The world-champion Houston Astros are young and crazy good, built to sustain a dynasty in the A.L. West. If the Mariners sit still during free agency, there is no way they’re going to close the talent gap in our lifetime.
Solutions? Sign Yu Darvish, for whatever it takes. If Darvish is on board, Seattle will be the front-runner in the scrum to acquire the reincarnation of Babe Ruth.
Typing that name in conjunction with the Mariners future — “Babe Ruth” — makes my day. I hope it makes Jerry Dipoto’s winter.