Yu Darvish is on the short list of the best starting pitchers on the planet. This should be news to no one. Since arriving to the states in 2012, only Felix Hernandez (+17.8 fWAR), Clayton Kershaw (+17.0 fWAR), Max Scherzer (+15.3 fWAR) and Justin Verlander (+14.4 fWAR) -- each Cy Young Award winners -- have accrued more value on the bump than has Darvish.
If we take a look at Yu's Baseball Reference page, which includes salary details, at the bottom we notice "2017 may become player option if Darvish meets certain Cy Young vote thresholds throughout contract."
It's an ambiguous stipulation, so we're lucky the Internet exists. Last season after Max Scherzer, behind 21 wins, won the CYA, Richard Durrett explained this caveat more thoroughly:
By finishing second, Darvish can opt out of the final season of his contract if he wins the Cy Young in the next three seasons or finishes second through fourth in two of the next three seasons.
At the time, it seemed simple enough. Yu Darvish was among the five-best pitchers in the American League from the get-go, and certainly after last year where he had his coming out party on a national scale. If we threw out run support -- essentially the determining factor in pitcher wins and losses -- the Cy Young Award race would have been a veritable coin flip, at best, between Scherzer and Darvish, but the fact that Max went 21-3 compared to Yu's 13-9 mark erased any doubt in that conversation.
It's now 2014, and injuries have forced the Rangers into being the worst team in Major League Baseball. Aside the (wasted) brilliance of Adrian Beltre in the field (+3.7 fWAR), and Darvish, of course, the big league club is mostly void of any redeeming qualities. The term lost season is thrown out quite a bit from Brandon and I, other Rangers bloggers, as well as the local and national media alike, but there really isn't a better way to describe it. I've already laid out the reasons why it benefits the Rangers to be as pathetic as they possibly can be from here out -- as if they have a choice -- but what I haven't mentioned is the benefit to Yu Darvish being being as pathetic as he possibly can be from here out. Though, he's so good that he probably doesn't have a choice, either.
And it all has to do with the Cy Young Award.
As I write this, Yu (+4.1 fWAR) ranks 6th among qualifying American League starters in fWAR, behind King Felix (+6.1 fWAR), Cory Kluber (+5.2 fWAR), Jon Lester (+5.1 fWAR), the incomparable Phillip Hughes (+4.4 fWAR) and Chris Sale (+4.2 fWAR).
In the wins department, which is still pertinent to the sports writers with a stake in the award, mind you, Yu is tied for 17th in the AL.
Per ERA, Darvish is 11th, and his tied for 4th in strikeouts with Max Scherzer.
In a roundabout sort of way, what I'm trying to say is this: There's a good chance Darvish finishes outside of the top-4 in this year's Cy Young Award vote, meaning he would have to either (a) win the CYA in 2015 or 2016, or (b) finish 2nd-4th both years to trigger his player option in 2017. These are the positives I find during depressing baseball seasons.
Now, I know what you're thinking... if the goal is to sign Darvish longterm, of what significance is this year, or the two seasons following it? This is a reasonable question.
And to be honest, I'm not totally sure. The obvious end-game with Yu is to sign him immediately to an extension lasting through his age-35 season, or what have you, at $25 million or so AAV (or whatever the going rate will be once this season concludes). What we don't know, however, is either (a) the timeline the Rangers front office has in mind in extending its brightest star, or perhaps more importantly, (b) Yu Darvish's interest in making Arlington his home for the duration of his baseball career. We tend to look through blue and red-colored goggles whenever it comes to our favorite players, though you'd have to figure most young men who come from other countries look at the Yankees or Dodgers or Red Sox as their ultimate destinations. I'm not saying Yu is that guy, but he's one of the best in the world at what he does and he can choose to do whatever he wants.
Should he finish outside the top-4 in this year's Cy Young Award voting, at the very least it gives the Rangers kinetic leverage for what is to happen in the coming years. Whether it's after 2014, or after next season, Texas are going to attempt to keep Yu at the premium cost he deserves. Should, for some reason, the organization continue to falter as they have this year -- something I don't personally expect to happen -- then Darvish's interest in staying could lessen.
This is why having him under team control in 2017 becomes a big deal.
There is still a ton of time for Texas to extend its ace, but he's an exceptional talent and there's a reasonable, if not probable, chance he pitches his way to a Cy Young in the next two years, which could be the last we see of him in a Texas uniform. Do any of us want to see that happen? Of course not. But it's out there, and with for the best pitcher in the history of the franchise, it's never too soon to start thinking of contingency plans.