Tazawa officially in fold for Red Sox

Tazawa officially in fold for Red Sox

BOSTON -- Once Junichi Tazawa officially became the latest Japanese pitcher to join the Red Sox, he had the platform to explain his reasons. The 22-year-old right-hander certainly had options, such as starting his professional career in Japan or with one of the other Major League teams that courted him.

So why the Red Sox?

"There are three main reasons," Tazawa said on Thursday afternoon during a news conference at Fenway Park. "One is their development program is excellent. Another is that there are Japanese players here, as well as Japanese staff and Japanese speakers who are part of the Red Sox organization. The third reason is that the Red Sox were the first team to scout me."

Yes, the Red Sox keep very close tabs on the Japanese market these days. They found Tazawa not in the spotlight, but pitching for a team called the Nippon Oil ENEOS in the Japan Industrial League.

"This has been a very long and thorough scouting process," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who speculated that Tazawa will begin his professional career at Double-A Portland. "I think we first saw Junichi in person last November. So, over a year ago. Throughout the past 12 or 13 months, we've had a total of 20 live, in-person looks from three of our best evaluators, in addition to some video evaluations."

Craig Shipley and Jon Deeble, the two members of Boston's international scouting department so instrumental in landing Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima, again played a crucial role in this signing.

"Craig Shipley and Jon Deeble were the first two on Junichi," Epstein said. "I believe when they first started scouting him, he was a relative unknown, even to most Japanese clubs. Certainly to most Major League clubs. They stayed on him through the course of the year, during which time he got better and better and better and gained more prominence. Ship and Deebs had strong convictions from the very beginning and stood by their beliefs throughout the process, and I believed that ultimately helped in signing Junichi."

Unlike the whopping $103.1 million -- including the $51.1 million posting fee -- the Red Sox invested in Matsuzaka, Tazawa's deal is for a mere $3.3 million over three years. The Red Sox are confident they will see plenty of return on that investment.

"As with any young pitcher, there's room for development," Epstein said. "But he's a very, very promising prospect that we're glad to add to the organization, and we think he'll make an impact at the big league level. He has a lot of attributes we look for in any pitcher. He's only 22 years of age. He has a relatively fresh arm and he's getting better. He's trending upwards. We think he will be a good match for our development system."

Tazawa is said to have an arsenal that is pretty polished for a 22-year-old.

"His fastball has increased in velocity in the time we've been scouting him. Most recently, he was sitting 91 to 94 [mph]," Epstein said. "He pitches comfortably in the low 90s with very effective command and the ability to use that fastball to all quadrants of the strike zone. [He has a] four-seamer and two-seamer, but primarily two-seam. He's got a good split-fingered pitch. He's got two breaking balls, a slider and a curveball. His slider is a plus pitch as well.

"As I said, [he has] command of all his pitches, not just for strikes, but in his spots. And he has outstanding makeup on the mound. He's a competitor. He's very aggressive, attacks the strike zone, attacks hitters in a fearless manner. Where he starts off remains to be seen. We've discussed Double-A as possibly being the appropriate starting point. We'll see how things look in Spring Training. He absolutely dominated the Industrial Leagues in Japan. It seems like a good launching-off point to start at Double-A and progress from there."

Thus far, Kazuhito Tadano (2004-05) and Mac Suzuki (1996-2002) -- according to The Associated Press -- are the only two Japanese players who played in the Major Leagues without pro experience in Japan. But considering the way the Japanese market is emerging, that trend could change, with Tazawa at the forefront.

"I don't know if it's so much about a sense of responsibility, but I do feel there's a sense that I need to pitch as well as possible and put my best foot forward and show what I can do," Tazawa said. "I want to develop all aspects of my pitching -- including velocity, including control."

Tazawa specifically requested that teams in Nippon Professional Baseball not draft him. And Epstein disputed that he broke any kind of gentleman's agreement with Japanese pro teams by signing Tazawa.

"I think this is a story about Junichi wanting to challenge himself at the highest level of baseball," Epstein said. "He had that desire, he expressed that desire. We scouted him for a long time. We hope he can succeed here and want to help provide him that opportunity. This is far from unprecedented.

"There are 23 Major League teams who have signed Japanese amateurs over the years. I think more than 50 players on the list signed directly as amateurs from Japan and have played for Major League organizations. I understand there's a lot of attention on Junichi right now, but really, this is about a talented young pitcher wanting to challenge himself in the Major Leagues. It's not unprecedented."

Hot Stove
Was it significant that the Red Sox signed Tazawa to a Major League contract, considering that isn't common practice when it comes to prospects?

"Not a lot of significance, other than that was what the market dictated," Epstein said. "We think he's ready to compete soon at the upper levels of the farm system and doesn't have an incredibly long development path ahead of him. It was appropriate, given the commitment he's making to the Red Sox, leaving his home country and passing on a career in the NPB to come here."

The Rangers were believed to have offered Tazawa more money than the Red Sox. In this case, the presence of Matsuzaka might have put the Red Sox over the top. Tazawa spoke with both Matsuzaka and Okajima before officially signing with Boston.

"I think there was definitely the allure of having Daisuke Matsuzaka playing here," Tazawa said. "To me, he's the best player. To be able to learn from him is an incredible opportunity for me."

Epstein didn't dispute that there could have been some correlation between the presence of Matsuzaka and the signing of Tazawa.

"When we signed Daisuke, we did it for baseball reasons," Epstein said. "We saw it as a unique opportunity to acquire a 26-year-old top-of-the-rotation starter. That said, we certainly hoped and considered the fact that signing Daisuke would allow us to establish a heightened presence in Japan -- and around the world, really. Certainly because of Junichi's admiration for Daisuke and the Red Sox's increased presence in Japan, perhaps we saw some of that help in this signing."

Pitching for Nippon Oil this season, Tazawa was 13-1 with a 0.80 ERA in 21 games, 11 of them starts. He struck out 114 and walked 15 over 113 innings. Though those numbers weren't posted against professional hitters, Epstein is confident that his scouting staff got a good feel for the righty.

"It can be a challenge, but it's not at all uncommon," Epstein said. "First-round college pitchers face competition that they dominate quite easily, but you can still scout them for their stuff, their command, their composure, their projectability. There's very competitive baseball in the Japanese Industrial Leagues."

And if he passes the proper tests in the Red Sox's farm system, Tazawa will get a chance to play in the most competitive baseball league in the world.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.