The best baseball play for the Toronto Blue Jays would be to sign Prince Fielder and parlay Adam Lind into pitching help, providing Fielder would take a shorter free-agent deal and that he wants to play in Toronto and … you’re right. The best hasn’t happened in these parts since 1992-93.
But the gutsy play is to sign Japanese free agent Yu Darvish.
It is a mark of how general manager Alex Anthopoulos is viewed in this market that he can mention the phrase “payroll parameters” six times in a news conference in which he has acquired a cheap closer; rail against reports that he has a bottomless pit of money and essentially shoo away time-wasting agents at the winter meetings; go all tough love on everybody and make it clear that in the classic chicken-and-egg scenario, revenues are the egg and payroll is the chicken; have his owners sink half a billion dollars into buying a stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – and still be deemed the favourite to spend $120-million (all currency U.S.) to sign somebody who hasn’t thrown a pitch in the major leagues.
Seriously, Anthopoulos – a.k.a. The Ninja GM, or Stealth-opoulos – could stand on the corner with a tin cup and people would ask him if he had change for $100.
So while Anthopoulos won’t say whether the Blue Jays are involved in the blind bidding process for Darvish, a 26-year-old right-handed pitcher, let alone suggest his bid is the highest, every one else is doing it for him. This despite the fact only a handful of people in the commissioner’s office know the identity of the team with the highest bid.
Even the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, Darvish’s Japanese team, won’t know the identity of the winning team until they formally accept the bid, which must be done before 5 p.m. ET Tuesday. They know how much they’ll get if the deal is successfully finished; they just don’t know from whom.
Japanese pitchers do not have a history of long-term success in the majors, with the differences in culture, environment and workload. And you can get proved major-league talent for three-quarters what it will take to get Darvish signed: a negotiating fee of $50-million, plus a contract of $70-million over five years, or thereabouts. But baseball people suggest Darvish – who is of Japanese and Iranian heritage – is worth it, because he’s taller (6 foot 5) than previous Japanese pitchers and has better stuff. Some scouts foresee a late-career shift to a closer’s role, à la Dennis Eckersley.
Judging the economic impact of Darvish on a franchise is difficult. Starters work once every five days, and it wasn’t exactly packed to the rafters here to see Roger Clemens and Roy Halladay win Cy Young Awards, was it? And while Darvish is a pop icon in Japan, revenues from licensed merchandise and overseas broadcast rights are shared by all major-league teams, so there might not be a unique windfall in that regard.
Still, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2009 that the New York Yankees generated $20-million in sponsorships with Japanese companies because of Hideki Matsui’s presence. And using figures provided by Forbes magazine, the Hardball Times showed that in Ichiro Suzuki’s rookie season, the Seattle Mariners saw revenue jump by $27-million from the previous year, compared to a $6-million increase for the five teams that had been closest to the Mariners in 2000.
Club performance played a role, but the bottom-line analysis was that Japanese players who make an impact – Ichiro, Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka, a free-agent pitcher who signed with the Boston Red Sox – could be worth an extra $11-million in revenue a season to their clubs.
You can see how this would grab the attention of the Blue Jays’ owners, Rogers Communications. Sports-specialty channels, cellphones, magazines, sports teams. Japan. Added revenue. Pitching. It hints at a textured move and a bold affirmation of ownership’s financial and emotional investment at a time when there is a belief the Blue Jays might be relegated to the corporate hind teat.
It’s perfect, which is precisely what is keeping the Toronto baseball crowd awake these nights. If the best doesn’t happen to your team, can you reasonably expect the perfect?