As far as off-seasons go, the Texas Rangers witnessed a fairly significant exodus of players from a 2016 roster than helped them win American League West for a second straight season.
Gone are Ian Desmond and Carlos Beltran, who were impact players for six months and two months. They will be missed, but not nearly as much as Rangers staples Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Mitch Moreland.
That trio was part of a new dawn for the Rangers and helped guide them to the World Series in 2010 and 2011, and to the wild-card game in 2012.
Of the 38 players who took the field Wednesday for the first spring workout for Rangers pitchers and catchers, only two were on that 2012 team.
As far as 2017 goes, though, Darvish claims to be at ease with his elbow and in as good as shape physically as he has been since perhaps his best big-league season in 2013.
A repeat of that performance this season could be a boon for the Rangers while also potentially leading to the exodus of another staple in Darvish.
For now, Darvish’s focus is on being as good as he can be.
Overall, I’d like to pitch better, at a higher level than last year.
“Compared to last year, during the regular season there were times where I had to worry about my elbow a little bit,” Darvish said. “Now, I don’t have to worry about it much, so I can throw as hard as I need to.
“Toward the end of last year I was getting better command, so I’d like to do that. Overall, I’d like to pitch better, at a higher level than last year.”
Darvish threw 25 pitches Wednesday in a hiccup-free bullpen session. He is already running through his full arsenal of pitches, and looks to be leaner than he was in 2016 while carrying roughly the same 235 pounds.
Barring something earth-shaking, either he or Cole Hamels will be the Rangers’ Opening Day starter. That decision is five or six weeks away. Darvish has never started a Rangers season opener.
That drama, at least for the Japanese media, will have closure. The contract drama might not.
It could, of course. An extension could be hammered out this spring, as general manager Jon Daniels has done in the past.
No one with the Rangers wants to see Darvish’s talent go elsewhere, and Darvish doesn’t want to leave the cozy situation he has created for himself.
But it’s not that simple.
Durability has never been one of Darvish’s strengths. He has missed one season entirely, in 2015 when he underwent Tommy John surgery, and has been on the disabled list in four of his five seasons since coming from Japan.
That includes his remarkable 2013 season in which he made 32 starts, went 13-9 with a 2.83 ERA and struck out 277 batters to finish second in Cy Young voting. Those numbers in 2017 could elevate his contract terms from five years to seven and from $27 million a year to $34 million.
That’s the risk in waiting for Darvish to hit free agency. Then again, there’s also the risk of not waiting and watching Darvish break down over the next five seasons.
277 Strikeouts in 2013 for Yu Darvish, who finished second in Cy Young voting
The Rangers might be better off using $30 million total on two pitchers, such as Rangers and potential free agents Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross. Maybe the Rangers stash all their chips for Japan’s Babe Ruth, Shohei Otani, or Jake Arrieta, another potential free agent.
There’s some risk on Darvish’s side, too. Stephen Strasburg, two years younger than Darvish, signed a seven-year, $175 million contract with the Washington Nationals last season in May, only to injure his elbow in August and miss the playoffs.
The Strasburg injury could make teams more cautious in free agency with Darvish.
He also has to consider the system he has put in place with the Rangers. He has his run of the place, as from his first day the club has at times bent over backward to keep him feeling comfortable.
Darvish, who is dedicated to his routine and hesitant to change, said last month that last season was the first time he felt completely at ease.
Starting over with that process with another team would take time, and another team might not be as gracious as the Rangers have been. He would also have to move his family to a new city with, perhaps, a larger media contingent.
“I like this environment, and I’m enjoying it,” Darvish said. “But this is our job. If I have to play on a different team, it is what it is. But I like being in an environment I’m comfortable with.”
Here’s a guarantee: Darvish’s contract situation will be settled this time next year. He might be part of the next great exodus from the Rangers, or maybe he decided the Rangers are his best fit.
That contract drama will be hanging over the Rangers until it has a resolution.