Junichi Tazawa, The Newest Arm in Free Agency

Brandon HeikoopSenior Analyst IOctober 31, 2008

There is a brand new entrant to this year's free agent starting pitcher crop—his name is Junichi Tazawa. Likely to be a first round selection in the Japanese draft, Tazawa requested that Nippon Professional Baseball teams skip over him in this years entry draft in order for Tazawa to become a Major League Baseball free agent.

At just 22 years old, Tazawa is far and away the youngest free agent on the market and instantly becomes one of the most interesting names available. Despite only having low level professional baseball under his belt, teams are bullish on the right-handed pitcher—although it is uncertain whether they think of him as a work in progress, or Major League ready.

Tazawa is armed with a fastball that touches 97 mph but typically sticks around 91-93. The pitch, from what I have seen and read, has some solid movement which darts inside on right handed hitters.

Tazawa also owns a strong curveball which he isn't afraid to use and a slider which is defined as being 'biting'—which is good.

After watching some video, something that worries me about Tazawa is his delivery, specifically with his tempo and release point. I'm not sure if this is an injury waiting to happen, or simply a unique delivery and would prefer to wait for individuals with a better understanding of deliveries to break it down.

His height (5'11") makes him a small pitcher, but he isn't so short that one would be worried. Clearly his release and build are not major concerns, as Tazawa has been heavily scouted by MLB teams, several of whom have stated they are "interested" in the pitcher.

Statistically, it is difficult to grasp where Tazawa is at. His line, as of September 2nd, is an impressive 54 IP, 46 hits, 56 K, 4 BB, 6 ER, 1.00 ERA, however it is unknown what the level of competition is like in Japan's Industrial League.

What does stand out, however, is the incredibly low amount of walks-although this could be a product of the league Tazawa plays in.

With the top heavy list of available free agent pitchers, Tazawa would jump to the top of my list. While teams cannot be entirely certain what they will get out of him, it can be assumed that he won't land a contract with an annual salary over $12 million.

The same cannot be said about the top three of CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets, and AJ Burnett, whom all figure to be close to $15 million+ a year.

Additionally, each pitcher has their own concerns. Sabathia has had very heavy workloads in recent years. While the big man has a smooth delivery, there is simply too much mileage on his arm to ignore.

Sabathia also should demand a contract of six to seven years, similar to that of Barry Zito's.

Ben Sheets may be the most talented free agent pitcher available, however, he is also one of the most fragile. Sheets has suffered from some severe pain in his pitching arm, and while his agent has cleared the worry that Sheets may need surgery, this certainly does not bode well for the oft-injured starter.

Despite logging his highest innings total since 2004, Sheets does not appear as though he will age favorably. However, he still figures to earn well over $13 million this year, but may be obtainable on a one or two year contract.

AJ Burnett is fresh off what is arguably the best season of his career. Burnett posted a career high in innings and was simply dominant in the second half of the 2008 season.

The problem is, AJ has never pitched in back-to-back 200 inning seasons, and at 31 years old (32 on Opening Day), the career underachiever is looking for a long term, high priced deal.

Other interesting free agent pitchers include:

  • Oliver Perez, the guy who can miss bats and the broadside of a barn with equal efficiency;
  • Jon Garland, a pitcher who can annually toss 200+ innings without surprising anyone;
  • Randy Wolf, the park enhanced wonder;
  • Ryan Dempster, my glove fanning favorite, and most desirable; and
  • Derek Lowe, a sinker-baller who simply has to run out of gas before the terms of his next contract does.

Not one of these pitchers are substantially worse options then the trio I previously mentioned in terms of relative value. There are also a handful or so of other interesting free agent names, but these guys are clearly the head of a deep 2009 class.

With that in mind, and coming back to Tazawa, we can see that the 22-year-old has as much value as any pitcher available. With his age and 'stuff' rating at the top of this years' free agent crop.

All that being said, if I am a Major League General Manager, I go at Tazawa with a five or six year offer, averaging around $10M a year—similar in value to the deal Carlos Silva received in the 2008 offseason.

However, this is after extensive research, ensuring that there aren't any major issues with Tazawa's delivery.