How far the Nationals' pursuit of Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish goes - assuming, of course, that they participate in the bidding process now that the right-hander has been posted by his homeland club, the Nippon-Ham Fighters - depends just as much on the other bidders as it does the Lerner family's deep pockets and desire to add to their collection of stud pitchers.
There will be no shortage of interest in Darvish, who is generally considered the best hurler never to pitch in Major League Baseball. Some teams will have only enough attraction to participate so they can say that they've made a bid to secure Darvish's services, not even considering themselves players. Others will bid what they think is fair, knowing that they don't stand a chance because other teams with more financial resources can outbid them. And then there are the teams that have both money and serious interest, figuring that Darvish is a rare talent worthy of the high posting fee and weight contract he'll no doubt earn.
Where do the Nationals fit in? Probably somewhere between the well-capitalized teams who could be outbid and the resolute clubs who will bid enough to make the Fighters consider accepting the offer and letting the negotiation process commence. The deadline for submitting sealed bids to Major League Baseball ends at 5 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday, and the winning bid will be forwarded to the Japanese club. If the Fighters decide it's a sufficient bid, the team placing the winning bid has 30 days to negotiate a deal with Darvish. If the sides come to an agreement, he becomes that club's property; if they don't, the posting fee is returned and Darvish stays in Japan.
General manager Mike Rizzo is wisely playing his cards close to the vest in this process, not wanting to tip his hand to other possible suitors. There's no benefit to letting the rest of baseball know if the Nats are bidding or how much they intend to spend. The sealed nature of the posting bid levels the playing field, but we already have a sense of who will join the fray.
Coyness aside, the Nats are in. Rizzo has scouted Darvish in person and he's had some of his trusted lieutenants see the hard-throwing right-hander more recently. Darvish would be a nice complement to Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann in the Washington rotation and would cushion some of the blow from losing free agent Mark Buehrle to the Marlins. The Nationals could still sign righty Roy Oswalt to further solidify their starting five and give youngsters like Tom Milone and Brad Peacock a little more time to mature.
But a lot of the teams that traditionally dig deep for the best free agents may not populate the list of bidders this time around. The Yankees have a lot of money tied up in their current aging roster, and while a guy like Darvish is infinitely attractive, they've still got a bad taste in their mouths from their disappointing dalliance with Japanese import Key Igawa who pitched last year at Double-A Trenton and in 2010 at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (after the Bronx Bombers spent $26 million in a posting fee and $20 million on a four-year contract in 2006). Igawa is the poster child for getting burned in the international market.
Ditto for the Red Sox, who laid out $51 on the posting fee for Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006 and then gave him a six-year, $52 million deal. So far, all Boston has gotten is a 49-30 record, a 4.25 ERA and six trips to the disabled list, the last requiring Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery. Whenever Darvish's name is brought up, Matsuzaka's follows as a cautionary tale, and it's doubtful Boston will make the same mistake twice. However, Bobby Valentine's hiring as the Red Sox's manager makes them a speculative wild card, since Valentine managed in Japan and has first-hand knowledge of Darvish.
Two of the teams that created a frenzy in the free agent market at the Winter Meetings - the Marlins and Angels - probably have spent all they can on the likes of Jose Reyes, Buehrle, Heath Bell, Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. But it wouldn't be surprising to see the Rangers, who lost Wilson, enter the fray (though it's difficult to believe they would balk at Wilson's asking price then meet Darvish's). The Mets and Dodgers are too deeply mired in internal turmoil to add such a huge contract, but there are plenty of teams that have both space in the rotation and payroll to burn.
The A's are said to be on that list, though to what extent remains a mystery considering their sometimes frugal nature; they want a new ballpark in San Jose before they commit to a spending spree. The Blue Jays have one of the most savvy international scouting departments in the majors and they'd love to land a big fish like Darvish. The Reds nabbed Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman in 2010, enticing the free agent with the triple-digit fastball with a six-year, $30.25 million contract; it wouldn't shock to see them in on Darvish, though they won't be a stealth player by any means. The Mariners have close ties to Japan and, if they don't succeed in their run at Prince Fielder, could view Darvish as a fan-friendly fallback. The Orioles need to make a big splash to placate a discontented fan base, and they've got money to spend since free agents don't seem to take their overtures seriously.
And the Nationals? They will sit back and quietly, confidently enter the bidding. Rizzo isn't the kind of guy who necessarily likes to go all-in at the poker table - as he did with the surprise deal given to right fielder Jayson Werth a year ago - but the scout in him knows talent and if he values his evaluators' opinions as much as he trusts his own gut, Rizzo just might do something decisive. We'll know when those bids are unsealed, and not a moment before.
Update: Check out No. 6 in the top 10 at the bottom of this piece by Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, who talks about Darvish's camp warning interested teams not to bid too much in the posting bid process because the pitcher believes it to be an unfair way to get players from Japan to the U.S. Of course, that could just be posturing to get more money in the contract phase of negotiations. Regardless, it's an interesting read.