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Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011

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Trendsetter: Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish's level of play has set the bar extremely high for his contemporaries. KYODO PHOTO

SPORTS SCOPE

Wakui must play like Darvish before he is paid like Darvish


Two of Japan's top pitchers made news early in the new year for very different contract issues.

Jason Coskrey

In Sapporo, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters reached a ¥500 million deal with Yu Darvish, making him the highest paid player in Japanese baseball. Meanwhile, in Saitama, the Seibu Lions and Hideaki Wakui are at a standstill in their negotiations.

Wakui and the Lions are so far apart, manager Hisanobu Watanabe publicly expressed concerns over what effect Darvish's deal may have on Wakui.

Wakui was 14-8 last season, finishing with 154 strikeouts and a 3.67 ERA. He made ¥200 million in 2010, and the Lions' offer this year is for the same amount. The team has pointed to his troubles late last season as a reason for not giving him a raise.

Which has left Wakui feeling under-appreciated, especially in light of the big contract his friend just signed.

But should Wakui expect a salary closer to what Darvish is making? It's not uncommon for players to want to be paid similarly to others in comparable situations, but how close are the pitchers really?

Each was a first-round draft choice in 2004, Darvish out of Tohoku High School and Wakui from baseball powerhouse Yokohama High School.

They both had pedestrian rookie years before a breakout 2006 saw Darvish finish 12-5 with a 2.89 ERA and 115 strikeouts while Wakui was 12-8 with a 3.24 ERA and 136 punchouts.

That has mostly been the story of their careers, Darvish always coming in ahead.

Darvish has a 75-32 career record with a 2.12 ERA, 974 strikeouts, 45 complete games, and a 1.02 WHIP over 139 appearances. Wakui is a step behind at 70-49 with a 3.36 ERA, 809 strikeouts, 41 complete games, and a 1.22 WHIP in 146 games.

Both have won a Sawamura Award (Darvish in 2007 and Wakui in 2009), a Japan Series (the Fighters in 2006, the Lions in 2008) and were on the triumphant 2009 World Baseball Classic squad.

Still, putting Wakui in the same class as Darvish, a two-time Pacific League MVP, is a hard sell.

The only time Wakui has really gotten the better of Darvish was during his Sawamura year in 2009. He was 16-6 then, posting career bests with a 2.30 ERA and 199 strikeouts while tying a career-high with 11 complete games in 27 starts. But Darvish, who missed time due to injury, was right on his heels, going 15-5 with a 1.73 ERA, 167 strikeouts and eight complete games in 23 appearances.

Darvish is among the most marketable athletes in Japan, baseball or otherwise. At 25 he's approaching the prime of his career and there's no reason to believe his popularity won't continue to rise. He moves the needle both on the field and economically for Nippon Ham.

Wakui doesn't have quite that kind of clout, probably even coming in second to shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima as the most popular Lion.

The Fighters are also trying to keep Darvish happy, to stave off him potentially demanding a move to the majors.

While Wakui, who faded down the stretch in 2010, may deserve a raise, Darvish is on another planet.

Wakui has tried to keep up through the years, but in this race he's still a little behind.



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