The Washington Times - October 26, 2011, 09:10PM

Way back in September, when Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo sat down with reporters, he outlined the top two items on his offseason wish list: a front line starter and a center fielder. 

One of those things could be available on the international market if Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish is indeed posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters. The Nationals have been linked to interest in Darvish for some time and Rizzo reaffirmed that interest on Wednesday.

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“Yu Darvish is a player that has a great talent level,” Rizzo said. “We’ve scouted him over the years. I’ve scouted him personally over the years.”

The Nationals pro scouts saw Darvish pitch several times this year and while Rizzo hasn’t scouted Darvish himself in the last two years, people in his organization who have seen him more recently are never too far away. 

So how serious is that interest? Rizzo declined to specify what his payroll flexibility would be for this offseason but if he’s intending to nab one of the top starters on the free agent market (in addition to several other things), you’d have to imagine it’s pretty substantial. The initial estimates for what Texas’ left-hander C.J. Wilson could fetch are in the range of the $82.5 million John Lackey got from the Red Sox two years ago. 

Darvish, however, would be considerably more expensive than that. MLBTraderumors recently polled a number of agents for their estimates on what it would take for a team to win the posting fee and then lock up Darvish for next year. The result was predictions that it would take at least $100 million — and when you combined an average posting fee of $45 million with a predicted $72-75 million five or six year contract, you’re looking at around $118 million. The process, at least, would not likely send the Nationals’ running.

“As we’ve always said,” Rizzo said Wednesday, “we’re open to acquire talent in any way shape or form we can. If it’s international talent we’re certainly willing to acquire international players.” 

Darvish is just 25 and he had an impressive 1.44 ERA in 232 innings this past season. His K/9 ratio was 10.7 and his BB/9 ratio was just 1.4. He surrendered just 0.19 home runs per nine innings as well, clearly keeping the ball in the ballpark well. He’s put up those types of numbers for a long time in Japan, with a career 2.12 ERA over six years and averaged just over 162 strikeouts per season. He’s a superb talent and he’s young enough where, potentially, his prime is still in front of him. 

In comparison to Wilson (age 30), Darvish is five years younger. Wilson’s career ERA is 3.60, which is obviously higher but it’s difficult to know what Darvish’s numbers would look like were he pitching against major league competition the past six years, instead of in Japan. Still, Wilson would appear to cost at least about $20 million less. If money is the bottom line, the answer would be clear.

As with most things, though, it’s not that simple. Signing Darvish would come with a high price tag, yes, and there’s no guarantees your bid will be the highest when you submit it to the Nippon Ham Fighters — or that the Nationals would be able to workout a deal with Darvish in the negotiating window. He would not, however, cost the Nationals any more than money.

Wilson — or another Type-A free agent like him — would if his current team offers him arbitration. The Nationals, for the first time in their seven-year history, do not have a protected first-round draft pick. They will pick 16th in the 2012 draft. The top 15 picks are protected. Therefore, were the Nationals to sign a Type-A free agent, they’d have to surrender that pick. It’s how they got Alex Meyer and Brian Goodwin this year — as compensation from the White Sox for signing Adam Dunn.

The Nationals are poised to take a big step this year — and in the years to come — from perennial loser to possible contender. They’ve done much of that by drafting high, being prudent with their selections and not being afraid to invest big money in the draft. Losing a first-round pick would throw a wrench in that part of the plan for at least one year and it’s something they’ll need to consider when they get into free agent negotiations.

“It would be part of the discussion when we discuss free agents,” Rizzo said. “I think it does have an impact because you lose the 16th player in the draft. That’s important. I think it would be part of our decision process and it does have an impact on us.”