Yu Darvish is a Dodger

Huge trade deadline move: the Texas Rangers have traded Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers for three minor leaguers.

For Rangers President and GM, Jon Daniels, this trade needed to happen. Yu Darvish is my favorite baseball player. I wanted him to be a Ranger forever. But in saying so, I also acknowledge that Texas was going nowhere fast; with or without Darvish their odds of making the postseason were only about 20%. And if they held on to Yu, risked him signing somewhere in free agency this winter, then all they would have to show for him would be a second round draft pick.

The Rangers were stuck, essentially.

In going to the best team in baseball, Darvish now has the chance to be the true superstar some of us have always known him as. His numbers in 2017 — his first full season back from Tommy John Surgery — have been underwhelming. But under the bright lights of LA, pitching for a club who currently has the best record in MLB, there is no reason to believe Darvish isn’t up for the challenge.

In five years with Texas, Yu tinkered on the edge of being a number one starter. His lifetime strikeout rate is 29.6% — a few points shy of one out of every three batters — and his career ERA is 3.42. This season he’s taken a dip to around a 26% K rate and an ERA at 4.01, the latter largely due to allowing 10 runs in 3.2 innings in his last start.

Yu Darvish is a champion. He belongs on championship-caliber teams. In almost six years pitching for Texas, the Rangers went a composite 484-432 (.528); throw out the abysmal lost year of 2014, where the club went 67-95 and Darvish missed the second half of the season, and the Rangers record since 2012 is 417-337 (.553).

Of course, in baseball we can’t just erase entire seasons and pretend they didn’t happen (even when sometimes we want to). In the same vein we can’t say Yu Darvish, and only Yu Darvish, was singularly responsible in how the Rangers won so many games. But it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t the best starting pitcher during every season over the duration of his time in Arlington. Below are Darvish’s fWAR figures from the five years he made starts:

2012: +4.6 (best on Texas’s pitching staff)

2013: +4.5 (best)

2014: +3.7 (best)

2016: +2.7 (second-best)

2017: +2.4 (best)

Particularly relevant is how Darvish only threw 144 IP in 2014, and only 100 IP in 2016. Extrapolated over a regular 200-inning workload, he would be looking at 5-win seasons in both of those years. But why am I still wasting space as an apologist for the guy? He isn’t even on my favorite team anymore.

Where I stand on Yu has been clear from the beginning. I think at his best he is one of the three- or five-best starting pitchers on the planet. I always said as long as he was wearing a Rangers uniform they would have aspirations of competing for a World Series. And, well, he’s gone now. He has been traded. And since he has been traded I see no other honest explanation: Texas has given itself a firm look in the mirror, and they no longer see a World Series challenger.

What is it they say about all good things? They must… you know. Texas has been one of the best organizations in baseball in the last decade. Since 2008 they have only ended a season below .500 only twice. They have hauled in four AL West titles (most in the division), two American League Pennants, two World Series appearances, two Wild Cards and played past Game 162 seven times.

Yu Darvish was signed to be the final piece in getting the franchise over the hump, to finally win that elusive World Series. To that end it’s a disappointment, but only since the expectation level has gotten so high. For my whole childhood the Rangers were one of the worst clubs in the sport. For the last ten years they have been one of the best clubs in the sport. I can’t be mad at that.

That physical momentum, which could only be achieved through the proven success of the early-2010’s, led Jon Daniels and Rangers ownership to place a bet. The bet went like this: pay the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japanese League a lump $51 million sum for exclusive negotiating rights for Yu Darvish, and what came of that was a six-year, $56 million contract. All-in the Rangers paid $107 million and change for (almost) six years of Darvish.

That is a contract they are going to live with every damn day, World Series or not. Because every year for the last six has been World Series or bust with the half-Japanese, half-Iranian right-hander atop Texas’s rotation. Even with a conservative valuation of each WAR (Win Above Replacement) being at $8 million, Yu was worth about $150 million — roughly $40 million in surplus value — to the Rangers over his tenure. And that’s based on performance alone (+18 fWAR). If we count jersey sales, exposure to the Japanese market to make Texas more of a global brand, and overall traffic through the gates of the stadium, Darvish was worth a helluva lot more than that.

Jon Daniels was in a tough spot. As I mentioned earlier, if he pocketed Yu Darvish just to see him sign with the Yankees or Dodgers this winter, then all the Rangers would have gotten in return would’ve been a 2nd round pick. Since Texas was in a hole in the Wild Card standings, and since they had to leapfrog like half the American League to get there, Daniels took the sensible way out and got what he could in return.

Emotionally this is a blow, but only in a child-like way. I love Yu Darvish, and dammit he isn’t supposed to get traded.

Rationally, this was the only way to go. If anything, the only criticism I have of Jon Daniels is that he didn’t go far enough. Trading Darvish was and is all that matters. But if he was willing to trade him, basically signaling to the team and the league that Texas would remove itself from the playoff hunt, then why wouldn’t he trade others — like Mike Napoli, Andrew Cashner, Carlos Gomez, etc. — as well? Why go with a half-measure?

There are a couple silver linings. For one, I grew up in a Dodgers household around the time of Mike Piazza, Eric Karros, Hideo Nomo and Raul Mondesi. My memories of the 1990’s Dodgers are still fond. So to see Yu Darvish pitching in the playoffs behind Clayton Kershaw is going to be fun, even if I prefer seeing him as a Ranger in the same types of games.

Secondly, and more importantly, Darvish is going to be a free agent in a few months. The Rangers will have ever chance to re-sign him to another 6-year contract if that’s what they really fancy. Do I find that to be an especially realistic outcome given that likely bidders will include the Dodgers, Yankees, and Cubs? Definitely not. But it’s nonetheless on the table.

I don’t know how I’ll look back on the Darvish Years, six seasons of the Rangers either underperforming (2012-2014, 2017) or overachieving (2015-2016). What I do know is Yu was both (1) absurdly good and (2) never really got a fair shake from the Dallas/Fort-Worth media. It never really mattered how good Darvish was, because he was never good enough in their eyes.

This, at least partly, I presume, has to do with Nolan Ryan, who was against Jon Daniels and ownership spending all that money in the first place. Regardless of Darvish’s accomplishments some of the media was going to toe the establishment line, stick with the old guard that Nolan represented. (There is still animosity towards Daniels for ultimately winning the power struggle with Ryan.)

If nothing else, I would think Darvish will get covered more fairly in a city like Los Angeles, a place that has largely moved on from many of the institutional prejudices that do not want to see a player of Yu’s background to succeed.

As a fan, this trade hurts. I was 21 when Yu was signed out of Japan. The Rangers were coming off back-to-back World Series losses, and so I staked a lot of Darvish to be the guy that led the franchise to victory. In my head it all seemed so simple at the time.

And now we’re here, almost six years later. I am now a 27 year-old, and the Rangers are still without a World Series trophy. The club has experienced all sorts of fluctuations, from losing when they were expected to win all the way to winning division titles they probably had no business with.

It sucks that, for all the enjoyment I got out of watching Yu Darvish pitch, the dream is finally over. There will be new players I stake the Rangers fortunes on, and there will surely be more anxiety and disappointment and intrigue and excitement.

For Darvish, one of my favorite players in the 20 or so years I have followed the Rangers, I only hope that he can win a World Series — and play some significant role in doing such. If it isn’t going to be with the Dodgers this year, then, hey, what the hell, maybe he can come back to Texas and do it there. Just like I envisioned at the beginning.

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