After finishing his high school career with Yokohama Shoka, pitcher Junichi Tazawa went undrafted among the 12 Nippon Professional Baseball teams. He went on to play for the Corporate League team Nippon Oil, unaffiliated with NPB.
Coming off a stellar 13-1, 0.80 ERA season where he also averaged 9.08 strikeouts per nine innings with Nippon Oil, mostly as a starter, Tazawa was sure to be an early selection in the next NPB draft. Instead, he wasn't even picked.
Tazawa, the 23-year-old right-handed starting pitcher hailing from Yokohama, Japan, had requested something unprecedented in Nippon Professional Baseball history.
After his manager Hideaki Okubo persuaded Tazawa during the 2008 season, Tazawa announced that he intended to pursue a career in Major League Baseball and skip the NPB Draft.
Respectfully asking teams to refrain from drafting him, Tazawa got what he wanted when all of the 12 NPB teams refrained from selecting the pitcher on the day of the Oct. 30 draft.
Tazawa chose this route to the majors, because had he gone on to play for Nippon Professional Baseball, he would have to either wait to play out nine seasons and become eligible for free agency, or hope that his team would put his contract rights up for auction through the posting system.
On an unrelated note, imagine if Ichiro arrived at age 23!
Going undrafted, Tazawa was headed to America as an amateur free agent, in attempt to fulfill his dream of pitching in Major League Baseball, sans the $103 million posting fee that came with Dice K, since Tazawa was not a member of any Japanese professional team.
The market was large for Tazawa, who drew multi-million dollar offers from several major league teams. Eventually, Tazawa ended up taking less money to play for the Red Sox, who have become influential in the Japanese market with the signings of Matsuzaka and Okajima.
The Red Sox spent just $3.3 million on this import, plus a $1.8 million signing bonus. Also included as perks in his contract, Tazawa will receive two round-trip airfare tickets annually from Japan to the United States.
With Boston's crowded rotation, Tazawa was not about to join the major league rotation. After signing his three-year deal, Tazawa was assigned to Boston's Double-A affiliate Portland.
Standing at just 5'11", Tazawa has had a done a lot in the minors and looks to be a big little man for the Red Sox in the near future. Almost like Dustin Pedroia, just without the mouth (not a knock in any way on Pedroia).
Going unnoticed amid all the fanfare of the dominance of Michael Bowden and Clay Buchholz, or talks of the prolific slump that Lars Anderson is experiencing, Tazawa has thrived with the Portland Sea Dogs.
Making 18 starts with the club, Tazawa has gone 9-5 with a 2.57 ERA. Also, Tazawa boasted an 88/26 strikeout-to-walk ratio, limiting opposing hitters to a .222 batting average.
His stellar work has recently earned him a call up to the Pawtucket Red Sox, whom Tazawa fired six innings of one-run ball for last night, striking out three.
With Brad Penny and John Smoltz leaving for free agency after this year, with the possibility of Josh Beckett leaving after next year, and the possibility Tim Wakefield retires or has his perpetual option declined, a whole lot of room is made in Boston's rotation.
Assuming next year's rotation shapes up as Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield, and Buchholz/Bowden, Tazawa still won't have much room to get his foot in the door.
However, Wakefield is a versatile pitcher and may be moved to the bullpen and a spot-starting role if all these guys come with their best pitching next year. Still, Tazawa is projected to crack the Red Sox pitching stiff by mid-2010.
Tazawa has a small frame and makes use of an unconventional delivery. His arm hangs behind his shoulder, and his forearm whips down to come to his release point. With the violent, jerky motion, it's self explanatory that his follow-through is pretty sloppy at this point.
However, he is able to stay balanced throughout his delivery, and does boast very solid lower-body mechanics. He is more comfortable pitching from the stretch, but the Red Sox are trying to get him in the habit of pitching from the windup.
Topping out at 92 mph, Tazawa has a good fastball with plus potential, but he mostly relies on his secondary pitches. Along with his inwardly-moving heater, Tazawa mixes in a great slider, typically clocked in the low 80s.
His true out pitch, though, is his filthy 70 mph curveball. Also, Tazawa occasionally throws a solid forkball, which has great potential to be one of his go-to pitches.
Tazawa boasts great command on all his pitches, and like his idol and likely eventual teammate Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tazawa likes to paint the corners of the strike zone.
However, unlike Matsuzaka, Tazawa executes his pitches better and finds the strike zone more often. In 113 innings last year, Tazawa walked just 15 batters, compared to Dice K's 94 walks in 167 innings last year.
He may not be up yet, but Tazawa is on a collision course with the Red Sox rotation, and with just half a season under his belt is already rated as the fifth best prospect in the Red Sox system by Soxprospects.com.
Tazawa will certainly come to find his land of opportunity is in the U-S-of-A.
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