Today the Texas Rangers will introduce Yu Darvish as the ace of their pitching staff. He posted dominant numbers playing in the Japanese league, and his conversion to the major leagues is expected to go smoother than Daisuke Matsuzaka’s. However, the question for the Rangers shouldn’t be what they expect out of Darvish, but should they have signed him in the first place?
In 2011 the Rangers starting pitching was amongst the best in the American League, ranking third in both ERA (3.65) and FIP (3.80). While they lost CJ Wilson to free agency, their former closer Neftali Feliz was going to have a shot at joining the rotation. The Rangers got quality innings out of Matt Harrison and Derek Holland, and together the three homegrown starters with form the core of the Texas rotation for years to come. Alexi Ogando gives the Rangers hope that Feliz conversion will be a success, as he was also successful switching from reliever to starter. Colby Lewis rounds out the rotation, and while he wasn’t as effective as he was in 2010, he was still an above average pitcher.
That rotation would have been above average, even before you add someone like Darvish. An impressive feat considering that the Rangers have lost their aces (Cliff Lee and CJ Wilson) in consecutive seasons. It would have been a relatively inexpensive rotation as well, allowing the Rangers to spend on other areas of need.
With the addition of Darvish, one of those 5 talented starters is going to get a demotion to the bullpen. Ogando is the likely candidate, and he’s already shown he can be an effective reliever. So the value the Rangers get out of Darvish would be the difference between what’s expected from Ogando (had he stayed in the rotation) and Darvish, which might not be as significant as you think. Given that Ogando posted a 3.56 ERA last season in 167 innings, Darvish would have to pitch significantly better than this for the Rangers to come out ahead.
Clearly the Rangers had money to spend this winter. They used over $51 million to secure the bid for Darvish, and then extended him for another $60 million over 6 years. Was there a way to upgrade their roster that would have been more beneficial to the Rangers?
Believe it or not, upgrading the lineup would have been a better use of the Rangers resources. Texas did rank 3rd in the AL last season in runs scored, so clearly this isn’t a team that has trouble scoring runs. However, their lineup is extremely right handed which is a significant issue. Ian Kinsler, Mike Napoli, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz are some Texas best hitters, but they all bat right handed. Josh Hamilton is the lone left handed bat in the middle of the order, and given how injury prone he is the Rangers are often using a lineup that has no strong left handed bats. They were exposed in the World Series against the Cardinals, as thanks to Hamilton’s injury they couldn’t combat the Cardinals right handed pitchers.
The Rangers also had a significant weakness at first base last year, which is ironic given that it’s one of the easiest offensive positions to fill. Mitch Moreland was the primary first baseman, and his 259/320/441 batting line (317 wOBA) was significantly below average. He’s no longer a prospect, and given that he’s already 26 there’s not much upside despite the impressive minor league numbers.
Fortunately for the Rangers there does exist a player in free agency who bats left handed, can play first base, and would cost slightly more than what they paid for Darvish. So who is this mystery player?
Prince Fielder. Yes, he would have likely cost around $150 million over 7 years, compared to the $111 million the Rangers paid for Darvish. However, Fielder would have added a greater value to the Rangers than Darvish. He would have allowed the Rangers to keep Ogando in the rotation, and prevented Mitch Moreland from having a significant number of at bats. He’s extremely durable, playing in no less than 157 games since 2006. And he would add a devastating lefty bat to the middle of the lineup.
Additionally, Fielder has proven he can succeed at the major league level, unlike Darvish who is all potential. Fielder has averaged a batting line of 287/409/547 the past 3 years, or 55% better than the average hitter according to OPS+. Just imagine those numbers in Arlington, where Fielder would be playing in one of the best hitter parks in the league. Over the past 3 years he averaged 39 home runs, so had he played in Texas he might have challenged Jose Bautista for the title of home run king.
Prince Fielder was worth 5.5 WAR last season, significantly better than Moreland’s 0.4 WAR in 134 games. Fielder has averaged 5.1 WAR over the past 3 seasons, and given that he’s in his prime we should expect him to continue producing at that level. So the Rangers could stand to gain 4-5 wins by adding Fielder each season. On the pitching front, Ogando was worth 3.6 WAR in nearly 170 innings. Darvish is expected to be an above average pitcher, but in order to give the Rangers a better value than Fielder he would likely have to earn close to 8 WAR per season. In other words, Darvish would have to pitch like Roy Halladay in order to be more valuable to the Rangers than Prince Fielder. And the odds of Darvish pitching like the best pitcher on the planet is incredibly unlikely.
Darvish should be an excellent addition to the Rangers staff. He’s entering his prime, and if the scouts and experts are correct he should be a top of the rotation starter for years to come. But he wasn’t the best fit for the Rangers, who likely would have been a stronger team by adding the left handed bat of Prince Fielder.