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All along this winter, the Texas Rangers have been working with two lists, two plausible possibilities for how their offseason could play out.
On the one hand, they could make some small tweaks to the roster of a two-time American League champion -- a utility player here, a lefty reliever there.
Or if the right situation presented itself, they knew they could do something big.
In case there was any doubt, we now know which list won out. A reported $51.7 million bid for the negotiating rights to Yu Darvish by a Rangers team that already had five starters lined up for 2012 certainly qualifies as big.
It's brave, too.
The Rangers are familiar with the ho-hum history of Japanese imports in this country. They know, in this bid accepted by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, they've just exceeded the post the Red Sox put down for Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose confounding career is currently held up by Tommy John surgery. They also know the "buyer beware" warnings that come with $100 million arms (which, when you factor in the bid and what it would take to get Darvish to sign the dotted line within the 30-day window that begins Tuesday, is likely what we're looking at here).
Nonetheless, they're counting on Yu.
General manager Jon Daniels scouted Darvish in person earlier this year, and saw first-hand this big-bodied, brooding son of an Iranian father and Japanese mother. He saw the sustained fastball velocity, the refined secondary stuff, the poise, the confidence, the cockiness that define Darvish. Like so many other scouts and executives, he saw an intriguing talent that has caused many to dismiss or otherwise ignore all past precedents from the likes of Kei Igawa, Hideki Irabu and Dice-K.
Darvish is young (25), tall, imposing and polished. Because of his mixed-culture upbringing, the belief is that he'll more easily acclimate to the U.S. than his peers of the past. Should he sign with the Rangers, having two Japanese pitchers in the clubhouse in Koji Uehara and Yoshinori Tateyama (not to mention Colby Lewis, who spent two seasons in the Japanese Central League, though he could become trade bait) should also help in that regard.
What won't help is that Texas heat and that bandbox of a ballpark. Darvish pitched in a dome in Sapporo, and the controlled conditions undoubtedly helped him post a sub-2.00 ERA in five consecutive seasons.
So yes, this is a risky leap of faith on the part of the Rangers. But it's surprising only in the sense that the rumblings leading up to Monday night's announcement had many thinking the Blue Jays would be revealed as the top bidder. As it turns out, a Texas team too well accustomed to finishing as a runner-up in its recent history came out on top.
Daniels' visit to the Far East long ago confirmed the club's interest in Darvish, and Nolan Ryan's competitive instincts and preoccupation with pitching made it clear the Rangers would make an aggressive bid of some sort.
"I've never known an organization that had excess pitching," Ryan said earlier this month. "I have the mindset that you're always looking for additional pitching."
The Rangers were right to keep looking.
Yes, they had taken to saying publicly that they could go into 2012 with the arms they already have assembled. The acquisition of Joe Nathan for the closer's role bought them flexibility with Neftali Feliz, and he, in turn, gives them some flexibility with the spot vacated by C.J. Wilson. Add Feliz to a rotation with Lewis, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando, and that might well be good enough to win both the AL West and the AL again (especially with highly regarded reserves like Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez). A year ago, we all pooh-poohed a Ranger rotation sans Cliff Lee, and Texas, statistically speaking, had one of the best starting staffs in the league.
But there's no denying that the stakes have been raised in this division. The Angels' starting staff, with Wilson aboard in more of a supporting role to established ace Jered Weaver, is one of the best in the game, and while their lineup likely lacks adequate protection for Albert Pujols, it's still more intimidating today than it was at season's end.
An upgrade, then, is in order. For even if Feliz becomes the latest poster boy for a Rangers club that has mastered the conversion of relievers to starters, the threat of him having an Ogando-like slide in the second half (remember, Feliz has never logged more than 127 1/3 innings in a single professional season, and that was back in 2008) is real.
"There's going to be a learning curve," Daniels said of Feliz. "He's going to be better in September than he is on Opening Day, and he's going to be better in '13 and '14 than he is in '12. We understand that."
The Rangers also understand that singular premise that you can never have enough pitching. And the deeper the staff, the more seamlessly Darvish, who was accustomed to pitching on five days' rest in Nippon Professional Baseball, can acclimate himself to the Major League stage.
We don't know if the Rangers will be able to work out a contract with Darvish, but we do know the right-hander is serious about coming here and reinventing the perception of Japanese pitchers in the Majors. We also know the Rangers made a serious bid in the posting system and are expected to make an equally serious bid to land him in their negotiations with Arn Tellem and Don Nomura.
Every indication is that a deal will be worked out within the 30-day window, and it's likely going to be a whopper.
Ultimately, then, it's interesting that the intrigue of the unknown outweighed the feel of the familiar for the Rangers. They knew what they had in Wilson. They had groomed him in their system and nurtured his successful transition from back-end reliever to front-line starter. But when he reached free agency, they let him walk, content to let a division rival fork over $77.5 million over five years for his services.
The Rangers' money, meanwhile, will instead be allocated toward the acquisition of an MLB rookie. Truth is, nobody can tell you with any semblance of certainty how the Yu Darvish Experiment will turn out.
But we can certainly tell you it qualifies as big and brave.