New Rangers Starter Yu Darvish Is The Next Big Thing. Emphasis On Big.

The end of the NFL season means another dismal off-season ahead for Cowboys fans, most of whom are doing what they always do around this time of year: trying to figure out how to replace the general manager before the owner kicks the bucket.

Thankfully, it also serves as a signal from the sports gods that spring training is nigh upon us.

As with every year, each and every MLB team in 2012 faces a list of questions whose answers will ultimately determine that team’s fate in the upcoming season. We Rangers fans learned a few things last year. For starters, no, Ron Washington’s managerial skills haven’t improved. Also, no, Josh Hamilton can’t stay healthy. Also? No, C.J. Wilson isn’t an ace.

On the other hand, we know now that, yes, signing Adrian Beltre was a smart Plan B after losing Cliff Lee to Philly. And, yes, Mike Napoli can play great defense. And, yes, Matt Harrison could emerge as a reliable option at the back end of the rotation.

The 2012 version of the Texas Rangers isn’t lacking in questions of its own, and I’ll evaluate the rest of them next week prior to pitchers and catchers reporting on February 22 to Surprise, Arizona. For now, though, rather than discussing Neftali Feliz’s move to the starting rotation or speculating about whether Josh Hamilton can stay sober, let’s take another look at GM Jon Daniels’ headline-grabbing acquisition of Yu Darvish. Sure, you’ve probably read enough Darvish stories and suffered through enough puns this winter to last well into the season. But not only does Darvish sit atop the Rangers’ list of 2012 question marks, he also happens to be baseball’s biggest story.

Bigger than the Cardinals trying to repeat as champs without Albert Pujols. Bigger than Pujols and Wilson trying to lead the Angels back to the post-season after a two-year drought. Bigger than the additions of Ozzie Guillen, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell and Carlos Zambrano to the Miami Marlins and their new stadium. Bigger than the healthy return of Steven Strasburg to the Nationals rotation and anticipation surrounding arguably the game’s top prospect, 19-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper. Bigger than whether Prince Fielder can make the necessary adjustments to a different league and Detroit’s spacious ballpark. And, yes, even bigger than all the intrigue in the AL East, from the Yankees adding Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda to their rotation to whether Bobby Valentine can save the Red Sox to the Rays trying to reach the playoffs again with the crappiest stadium in the game and a shoestring budget.

Part of why Darvish is such a big story is because, well, he’s big — physically, that is. At 6-foot-5 and around 220 pounds, the half-Iranian and half-Japanese right-hander has the ideal physique for a staff ace, unlike the majority of his Asian counterparts that have had a swim through Major League Baseball. The 25-year-old is considered the best pitcher in the history of Japanese baseball and is a sex symbol over there to boot.

So his ego’s pretty big, too.

The financial commitment made by the Rangers to land Darvish is another reason why he’ll be so fascinating to watch. If Darvish meets his roster incentives (not more than 30 days on the disabled list) for the first five years of his six-year contract and doesn’t meet the incentives allowing him to opt out in 2017 (finishing highly in the Cy Young voting) , Texas will have coughed up a total of $111.7 million, at an average of $18.6 million per year over six years.

That’s more dough than anyone has spent on any other right-handed pitcher in MLB history, just topping the $103.1 million commitment five years ago by the Red Sox to sign Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had been previously crowned as Japan’s greatest hurler until Darvish proved to be even better.

Although Matsuzaka, or Dice-K as he’s called, amassed 15 wins, struck out 201 batters and won a World Series championship in his first MLB season, it’s likely the Red Sox would have pulled it off without him, given his 4.40 regular season ERA and 5.03 post-season ERA. There’s no doubting that he was only worth a mere fraction of the $57.1 million ($51.1M posting fee, $6M salary) that Boston paid for him in 2007.

But though Dice-K did in fact emerge as a potential ace the next season, posting an impressive 18-3 record and a 2.90 ERA, he also led the league with 94 walks. His next three seasons were riddled with injuries and inconsistency, resulting in a combined 16-15 record, a 5.03 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP in 45 games. This year, he’s not expected to pitch until mid-season.

Had Dice-K stayed completely healthy, there’s no way to know how good he would have been. But we do know that the $103.1 million commitment to him ranks as one of the worst pitching investments that this sport has seen, perhaps topped only by the seven-year, $126 million deal handed out to Barry Zito during the same off-season. (Had the offers by Boston and San Francisco not been so ridiculous, both players could have landed in Texas, since the Rangers reportedly offered Zito a six-year, $88 million deal and bid approximately $22 million for the rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka.)

And some choice comments made by former All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling, who appeared recently on 105.3 The Fan, are perhaps even more revealing about Dice-K..

In 2007, Schilling played in Boston with Matsuzaka and reliever Hideki Okajima, another Japanese import also playing baseball for the first time in the bigs. Remember: Schilling had also previously been teammates with South Korean pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim with the Diamondbacks from 2000-03 and with the Red Sox in 2004.

When asked about the adjustments made by Asian pitchers coming to MLB, Schilling acknowledged that playing alongside an Asian-born player has always been “one of the most confounding things [he’s faced in his] big-league career.”

If that quote wasn’t enough cause for concern, he went further.

“They don’t listen,” he said. “They don’t follow rules. They believe that the way they’ve come up doing things in their league is the way to do things.”

And still, he went even further.

“The communication thing is a massive issue,” he said. “It’s a huge problem because most of them understand English far better than they let on, but they don’t listen. They don’t understand that the work ethic has to change.”

Oy. Any last thoughts on the subject, Curt?

“I haven’t played with a guy who’s made the adjustment well,” he continued. “It doesn’t translate. I want to see [Darvish] be the first kid that’s legitimately what he’s been claimed to be.”

Yeesh. Well, at least he’s pulling for Darvish…

Listen: This doesn’t mean Darvish is destined for failure. It’s merely another aspect that needs to be considered when assessing the risk of devoting so much money to an unproven player in the majors. And it’s not like there isn’t a mountain of other adjustments that Darvish has to navigate aside from what Schilling talked about — throwing a different ball, pitching outdoors (in the brutal Texas summer heat, no less) and facing new and better hitters.

Having already written a $51.7 million check to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters as a fee in exchange for the 30-day window to negotiate with Darvish, the Rangers will pay Darvish a $5.5 million salary in 2012, along with another $800,000 if he spends 30 or fewer days on the DL. Some perspective: That $58 million commitment represents more money than the combined 2012 salaries of Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay and Jered Weaver, with $4 million left over.

Obviously, none of those aces are available on the open market, but it illustrates just how much Texas has invested in Darvish.

Throughout the off-season, there were reports about Texas discussing contract extensions for Josh Hamilton (although those were tabled after his relapse, and rightfully so), Mike Napoli, Ian Kinsler, Derek Holland and Colby Lewis. There’s still time for that, although, as I wrote long before his Sherlock’s episode, the Rangers should move on without Hambone — that is, unless he unexpectedly agrees to a massive hometown discount. So, at this point, it’s difficult to assess how shelling out so much cash for Darvish will affect the team’s stated plan to keep its core intact.

Another thing to consider: The Darvish signing likely significantly decreases Texas participating full-force in any of the bidding wars next off-season for proven young starters Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez. Probably the year after that, too, when Tim Lincecum, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana are scheduled to hit the open market.

Desperate for a No. 1 starter, the Rangers have gone all in on Darvish. And, so far at least, they’ve only added more questions about their offseason in the process. Can Darvish break the trend of Asian pitchers unable to replicate their success from Japan? Can he become the ace Texas is paying for?

If so, Darvish will become as beloved here in Texas as he is in Japan. And, more important, the Rangers will be poised to win their first World Series after coming as close as possible — say it with me — twice.

If not, Texas could still make it to its third-straight Fall Classic. Maybe, like Boston in 2007, the Rangers don’t need Darvish to be an ace.

But their checkbook says otherwise. It says “This is the guy that’s gonna put us over the top.”

I’m anxious to find out if that’s true.. So is the rest of the baseball world.

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