The Boston Red Sox signed 22-year-old Japanese right-hander Junichi Tazawa to a three-year, $3.3 million contract Thursday, Dec. 4, in an effort to bolster an already nasty young pitching staff. Tazawa will earn a $1.8 million signing bonus, along with $450,000 in 2009, $500,000 in 2010 and $550,000 in 2011.
Reports out of Beantown have Tazawa as a likely candidate to begin his Major League Baseball career with Boston's Double-A Portland Sea Dogs of the Eastern League. However, Tazawa, a principal force for Nippon Oil ENEOS of Japan's Industrial League, could be on the fast track to join fellow countrymen hurlers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima with the big club sooner than later.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Tazawa was not drafted by Nippon Professional Baseball's 12 teams after graduating high school, thus paving the way for him to join Japan's amateur Industrial League.
In 2007, Tazawa tossed for Japan in the World Baseball Cup in Taiwan, where some said his fastball was clocked at 97 miles per hour.
Tazawa played four years for Nippon Oil. In 2008 he went 13-1 in 21 appearances (11 starts) with five saves, a 0.80 ERA, 114 strikeouts and 15 walks in 113 innings. He also added four shutouts to his resume.
Tazawa propelled Nippon Oil to win their first 32-team Intercity Baseball Tournament in 13 years. He threw in five straight games, going 4-0 with one save and a 1.27 ERA enroute to being named the event's Most Valuable Player.
This past March he also nabbed MVP honors in the Sports Nippon Tournament after whiffing 18 batters in the quarterfinal round, which was a career best for Tazawa.
Tazawa is a slender hurler whose unconventional delivery has recently been compared to that of top Red Sox pitching prospect Michael Bowden, Los Angeles Dodgers Japanese import Hiroki Kuroda and former big-league hurler Shigetoshi Hasegawa.
During his windup, Tazawa's arm trails behind his shoulder with a sudden whiplash action down from his elbow as he slingshots the ball with a glaringly absent follow-through. Other than his awkward delivery, Tazawa possesses relatively ironclad mechanics from the waist down.
He is said to throw two- and four-seam fastballs that are believed to consistently range between 90-94 mph with an occasional burst of high-90s heat. His secondary pitches range from a heralded slider, a mid-70s 12-to-6 curveball and an average changeup that mirrors the action of a split-fingered fastball. Other reports also note a forkball in his arsenal.
Due to his fastball being only slightly above average, it's believed that his secondary pitches are quite developed and he relies on them heavily. Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, among others, has called his command "superb."
Whenever he surfaces in MLB, Tazawa will have to adjust to tossing his home pitches in hitter-friendly Fenway Park, but Matsuzaka was able to make a swift transition despite a bumpy first year.
One of the more prominent questions surrounding Tazawa's signing is where he will possibly end up if he were to be called up to the Sox. Many believe that he will assume a role similar to relief pitcher Justin Masterson in preparation for a more prominent role as Boston's coveted No. 5 starter.
However, the competition they have internally will be formidable. The trade of outfielder Coco Crisp to the Kansas City Royals for relief pitcher Ramon Ramirez should hinder Tazawa's rise to the bigs as a starter by pushing Masterson into the lead for the No. 5 spot.
Masterson finished the 2008 campaign with a 6-5 record in 36 appearances (nine starts) with 68 strikeouts, a 3.16 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP and a .216 opponents' batting average in 88 1/3 innings of work.
Starting pitcher Clay Buchholz could also pose a threat to Tazawa's ascension through Boston's pitching ranks. For the Sox last season, Buchholz was 2-9 in 16 appearances (15 starts) with 72 strikeouts, a treacherous 6.75 ERA, a horrid 1.76 WHIP and a .299 opponents' batting average in 76 innings of work. This came after he notched a no-hitter in 2007 while posting a 3-1 record in four appearances (three starts) with 22 strikeouts, a 1.59 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and a .184 opponents' batting average in 22 2/3 innings.
After Buchholz's horrific summer, he was sent down late last August and notched a combined 5-2 record in 11 starts between the Double-A Sea Dogs and Triple-A Pawtucket with 61 strikeouts, a 2.30 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP and a .209 opponents' batting average in 58 2/3 innings.
Although he may not be as seasoned as Masterson and Buchholz, Bowden will also get a long look by the front office as a potential No. 5 starter. Last season he pitched one game with the Red Sox, notching the win Aug. 30 against the Chicago White Sox while allowing two earned runs on seven hits with three whiffs and one walk in five innings of work.
In 26 cumulative appearances (25 starts) between the Double-A Sea Dogs and Triple-A Pawtucket, Bowden was 9-7 with 130 strikeouts, 29 walks, a 2.62 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP and a .212 opponents' batting average in 144 1/3 innings.
One factor that could help Tazawa reach the majors early is his contract - he signed a major league deal and is currently on the Sox's 40-man roster. They might be compelled to showcase him sooner, especially if they follow through on rumors of trading a pitching prospect for a catcher.
Many pundits will try to compare Tazawa to fellow Japanese hurlers like Okajima, Kuroda, Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Masahide Kobayashi and San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Keiichi Yabu. However, the fact of the matter is that each of the pitchers named above hurled in Nippon Professional Baseball before they made the trek overseas - they were seasoned veterans of the game. They had experience in a highly competitive baseball league which made their transition a lot smoother, albeit not always successful.
However, his delivery and demeanor undoubtedly resemble Kuroda, who started 31 games for the Dodgers in 2008 and went 9-10 with 116 strikeouts, a 3.73 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP and a .253 opponents' batting average in 183 1/3 innings. Two of his nine wins were complete game shutouts.
Tazawa should benefit by starting his professional career in the United States. He will mature and develop among a bevy of talented pitchers that many would say far surpass the young talent of Japan. He'll learn the habits and practices of the American game from the roots as he finds his niche in a highly competitive baseball faction that can easily bury your career if you're unprepared.
Most of the Japanese imports of the past are players that were at the tail end of their prime and looking to fulfill a dream by playing in the illustrious MLB. Tazawa is a different breed of Japanese ballplayer, an amateur athlete trying to develop his game to the fullest by playing with the world's best. He'll likely be a trend-setter for many young Japanese players just starting to harness their talent and chase the dream of playing in the states.
For the time being, Tazawa is a pure speculative pick as a late roster filler in drafts. His undefined role leaves little to be desired among fantasy owners, but those in American League-only setups could take a flier on him in hopes that he lives up to his immense billing. The Sox have ample contingency plans for the back end of their rotation, so they might not rush him to the show or the rotation this year. AL-only league owners could make a cheap bid on him in auctions or pick him in the late rounds of serpentine formats.