Albert Pujols is an Los Angeles Angel. Prince Fielder still has yet to sign. Those are the two top free agents on the market this year, but both are positional players, specifically first baseman. Depending on preference, the top pitching free agent going into the offseason could have been considered to be C.J. Wilson, who has also signed with the Angels. The other pitcher vying for that crown is Yu Darivsh, who's fate will largely be determined tonight.
Darvish, who just turned 25 this August, was posted by his team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, on December 8th. From there, all major league teams were eligible to bid in a silent auction for the right to exclusively negotiate with Darvish in an attempt to sign him to a contact. If the team that wins is able to sign Darvish, they will pay the posting fee to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and then Darvish the agreed amount money. The bidding ended on December 14th and the winner will be announced tonight.
Darvish, who stands at 6'5, 215 lbs, has absolutely dominated the Nippon Professional Baseball League since age 18. In 164 career starts, Darvish posted a 1.99 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. In those 1268.1 innings, he has struck out 1259 batters while only walking 333. That gives him a K/9 rate just shy of 9, a BB/9 rate of ~2.3, and a K/BB rate of ~3.8, all excellent numbers.
According to this fanpost on minorleagueball.com Darvish "throws five pitches that project as above average at the MLB level: a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a pair of sliders and a 12-6 curveball. He’s also added a cutter into his repertoire this year, and he mixes in occasional changeups and forkballs. Darvish’s out pitches have been his two sliders: a mid-80′s horizontal slider that breaks hard and away from right-handed batters, and a lower-80′s downward-breaking slider. This year he induced whiffs 19.5% of the time he threw his slider — and he threw them about a quarter of the time." That is a very impressive pitching arsenal, but it also invokes memory of another Japanese pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, who the Red Sox paid just over 50 million dollars just to talk to, before signing him to a 6 year/52 million dollar contract. Matsuzaka, like Darvish, had a large arsenal of pitches that were allegedly average or better, but that did not prevent him from being a bust so far in the United States. This is especially true considering the significant hype around Matsuzaka prior to his move to the MLB. Over the course of 5 major league seasons, Matsuzaka has been injured often and has posted a 4.25 ERA, a number indicative of a back-end of the rotation starter as opposed to the ace people expected him to be.
However, Fangraphs offers hope, pointing out that Yu Darvish's size (Matsuzaka is only 6'0, 185 lbs) and subsequent fastball velocity gives him a better chance of succeeding in the major leagues. Furthermore, Darvish has posted better statistics in the NPB than Matsuzaka did, suggesting he will translate better to pitching in the MLB.
There are several teams supposedly in on Darvish. The Blue Jays and Rangers are the favorites to win the bidding according to MLBTR. Darkhorses include the Cubs and Yankees. No one knows for sure, but in a few hours, the winner of the Yu Darvish sweepstakes will be determined, and I'm personally unbelievably excited.