The Angels, distinctly unused to finishing out of the money in the AL West but looking up at the pennant-winning Rangers for two straight seasons, had made this offseason's most dramatic single move, with a 10-year, $240 million contract for the game's premier player, Albert Pujols. The Angels also had the "daily double" acquisition of C.J. Wilson, taking him from atop the Rangers' rotation and adding him to their own staff, all for $77.5 million over five years.
What would the Rangers do to counter these moves? The question was answered on Wednesday with a deadline-beating deal with Darvish. Fittingly enough, this was a record-setter for a Japanese player. The contract is for approximately $60 million over six years, but the Rangers had already posted a bid of $51.7 million just for the right to negotiate.
So the Rangers have essentially replaced Wilson with Darvish. Are they still better than the Angels, as they have been for the last two seasons? And are they, for that matter, all done countering the Angels' acquisitions? What about Prince Fielder, still at large in the free-agent pool, a genuine power hitter who would seem ideal for the Rangers' lineup, their ballpark and even their league?
Darvish, who has never pitched in the Majors, cannot be written in ink as a sure thing, but his credentials appear to be far better than those of Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was previously the most expensive and coveted pitcher to make the transition from Japanese baseball to the North American game.
Darvish is only 25. With mid-90s velocity, he throws harder than Matsuzaka, and his numbers are the stuff of dreams for a pitching coach. In five full seasons in Japan, he has never had an ERA higher than 1.88. In 2011 he had an ERA of 1.44 and a WHIP of 0.828, and in 232 innings he struck out 276 while walking only 36.
But the record of Japanese starting pitchers making the transition to Major League Baseball, Hideo Nomo aside, is not one of unbroken success. But none of those pitchers came here with the kind of track record that Darvish has established. Nor, for the most part, did they come at an age when they could fairly be expected to be entering their pitching prime.
This is why the Rangers were willing to part with more than $111 million to secure Darvish's services. It would be fair to expect that Darvish will be a contributing member of a Texas rotation that already contains substantial young talent on the rise, including lefties Derek Holland and Matt Harrison. And if the Rangers follow through on their plans to shift Neftali Feliz from closer to starter, they could, with the addition of Darvish, move the hard-throwing Alexi Ogando back to the bullpen for greater depth in their relief corps.
Any way this gets sliced, the Rangers will have terrific pitching potential for the long term. And these talented young pitchers have already performed well enough to expect that the 2012 season is not going to become a major decline, either. The acquisition of Darvish has further bolstered a future that was extremely bright in any case. The only issue is how far this much young pitching can go in the upcoming season.
Before the deal, the Rangers took pains to indicate that if they acquired Darvish, the extremely pricey signing of Fielder would be out of the question. We all delight in the theoretical spending of someone else's money, and the Rangers would know the details of their financial limits better than the rest of us, but of all the clubs that have been mentioned as landing places for Fielder, the Rangers make the most sense.
If it's a long-term deal that Fielder and Scott Boras, his extraordinarily persuasive agent, want -- and they do -- then Fielder looks like a candidate for an AL club. He has worked hard to improve at first base, but he will never be a Gold Glove contender. He could open a career with the Rangers as a first baseman, and segue at some point into at least a part-time designated hitter.
And the union of Fielder with the Rangers' home ballpark and their lineup would put the club on an even better competitive level than the one it has attained the last two seasons.
But for the moment, the Rangers have done the necessary thing -- obtaining, at a necessarily significant expense, a pitcher with the potential to lead a rotation. The Angels had given them very little choice. The Rangers' response, with the acquisition of a pitcher from one hemisphere away, may not have been typical, but it does seem viable.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.