Junichi Tazawa seemed unlikely to inspire half of New England to spend a day hitting the refresh button on their browsers while tracking the progress of his flight to Boston.
The amateur pitcher from Japan will not elicit the rock-star following that accompanied Daisuke Matsuzaka’s arrival two years ago. Even so, Tazawa offers a reminder of the significance of the Red Sox signing of the right-hander in 2006.
Tazawa is a 22-year-old right-handed pitcher from Japan who had been pitching for Eneos Oil of an amateur industrial league. He was eligible for the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) draft this year, but asked that teams in Japan not draft him, and instead permit him the immediate opportunity to commence his career in the U.S.
This would break with the protocol established over the better part of the past decade. Since the late-1990s, the most prominent Japanese players have come to the U.S. in one of two ways.
Some, including Sox reliever Hideki Okajima, have spent 10 or more years years in the NPB before coming to the U.S. as free agents. Others, including Matsuzaka, have been subjected to a posting process, with their rights auctioned by an NPB club to the highest bid by a Major League Baseball team. Posting has usually taken place after several seasons in Japan.
The NPB teams granted Tazawa’s request, and did not draft him last month. The League did put in place a rule that would prohibit Tazawa from playing in the Japanese majors for at least three years after he has played in the U.S.
All the same, the rule had no deterrent effect, as Tazawa was introduced as the newest member of the Red Sox organization yesterday. The reason?
“Tazawa, who entered Nippon Oil Corp. after graduating from a high school in Yokohama, says he wants to play for the same team as Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who went to another high school in Yokohama,” reported the Mainichi Daily Times.
BUT HOW GOOD IS THIS GUY?
Breathless reports of Tazawa’s high-90s velocity appear to have been misleading. All the same, though multiple officials in the U.S. and Japan said that the pitcher topped out closer to 93 mph, he still remains an impressive performer.
One baseball official in Japan said that Tazawa almost certainly would have been the top pick in the NPB’s amateur draft this year. Four different general managers at the G.M. meetings earlier this month described the pitcher as the equivalent of a late first-round draft pick.
Tazawa has a three-pitch arsenal that he uses to attack the strike zone (“Never walks anyone and strikes out everyone,” said the official in Japan). He complements his fastball with a swing-and-miss splitter and a slurve (alternately described as a slider or curve), and demonstrates an advanced feel for pitching.
The industrial league in which he pitches makes it somewhat more difficult to assess the pitcher. Unlike Matsuzaka, who had pitched at the highest levels in Japan, Tazawa is pitching to inferior talent.
“There’s not a big track record,” said one A.L. Central official whose club scouted Tazawa. “How many high school players from Alaska have you seen? You just don’t know (how the performance translates). Do you take that one guy that pops up once every 20 years? Some part of you (worries) that we just don’t have a track record.”
Still, scouts can evaluate the quality of his stuff. Reviews from that perspective are positive, though fall short of glowing.
As described by one National League G.M., his stuff was solid-average to plus, rather than exceptional. His size—Tazawa is listed at 5-foot-11—also means that his fastball plane is somewhat flat, although he has shown an ability to work both the upper and lower reaches of the zone by elevating his fastball and making his splitter dive.
“If he was 6-foot-2, he’s a different monster. But at six feet, you always have that concern, especially for a right-hander,” said the G.M. “There are a lot of (shorter pitchers) who have been successful, but there have been more who failed.”
The 22-year-old is not considered ready to jump straight to the majors. Instead, he will likely need time in the minors, and reports from Japan suggest that he has an understanding that he would report to Double-A Portland for the Sox.
“There’s some development time left there,” said the N.L. official. “You’re not going to take him and put him straight into the major leagues. There’s not the LeBron James factor. There’s risk involved.”
WHO WANTED TAZAWA? WHAT IT COST TO GET HIM?
Reports out of Japan (as translated and compiled by NPBTracker) suggest that Tazawa has received four offers from MLB clubs: the Red Sox, Mariners, Rangers and Braves. The terms have been described as ranging from $3 million for three years to $7 million for four seasons.
Interestingly, there seems to be a sense that while the Rangers—who supposedly made the four-year, $7 million deal—offered the most money, Tazawa was inclined to make his signing decision based on other factors.
In the case of his reported desire to sign with the Sox, word is that the organization’s plan for his assimilation and development as well as the appeal of being in the same organization as Daisuke Matsuzaka have been important decision factors.
Clearly, the presence of pitchers Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima on the Sox has elevated the club’s profile in Japan. So, too, has the work of Vice President/International Scouting Craig Shipley and Pacific Rim scouting coordinator Jon Deeble.
“(The presence of Matsuzaka and Okajima) seems to have helped,” said Sox G.M. Theo Epstein earlier this month. “The relationships that Craig Shipley and Jon Deeble have built over there are probably the most important factors.”
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE OFFERS TO TAZAWA?
Given the apparent industry consensus that Tazawa is the equivalent of a late first-round talent, the market for his services is somewhat fascinating to consider. The contract that he signs offers a sort of case study about the approximate value of a first-round selection.
Eight of the 10 players signed from picks 21-30 in this year’s draft accepted signing bonuses of $1.5 million or less. (The two exceptions were Yankees draftee Gerrit Cole, who decided after being drafted that he wanted to go to college, and Red Sox selection Casey Kelly, who got a $3 million bonus.) Those bonuses were roughly in keeping with the slot values assigned by Major League Baseball.
But if you allow a first-round talent to negotiate with not one but instead 30 teams, you get a sense of the kind of “discount” offered by the draft. If reports of a four-year, $7 million offer by the Rangers are accurate, that suggests that the draft might represent savings of approximately $4 million.
A player whose talent would merit roughly a $1-1.5 million bonus, and who would earn roughly $1.5 million in major-league salary in his first three big-league seasons (Tazawa appears unlikely to reach arbitration until after his fourth pro season in the U.S.), could more than double that total if allowed to peddle his services to the highest bidder.
A couple of G.M.s compared Tazawa’s amateur free-agent status to that of a few first-round picks in the 1996 draft. That year, agent Scott Boras exploited a loophole in draft rules to achieve free-agent status for four of his clients—Travis Lee, Matt White, John Patterson and Bobby Seay—after they were selected in the first round.
Lee, the first baseman who had been the second overall pick by the Twins, signed a four-year, $10 million deal with Arizona. White, a high-school pitcher selected seventh by the Giants, received a $10.2 million bonus from Tampa Bay. Patterson, a prep pitcher who went fifth overall to the Expos, received a $6.075 million bonus from the Diamondbacks and Seay, the 12th overall pick, got $3 million.
Recently, the signing of 19-year-old Cuban slugger Dayan Viciedo by the White Sox offered a different data point in measuring the value of a draft pick. Viciedo, described by some as a potential mid- to high-first rounder, agreed to a four-year $11 million signing bonus with Chicago. In the draft, he would have been fortunate to command a bonus of half that size.
The lesson: draft picks are very, very valuable.
WHO’S MISSING FROM THE PARTY?
While the Red Sox, Rangers, Braves and Mariners all reportedly made offers to Tazawa, and most major-league teams have scouted him to varying degrees, it is noteworthy that two parties have expressed no interest in him.
The Sox and Yankees have duked it out in the international arena several times in recent years, most notably when trying to acquire the services of Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras in 2002. But this year, only one party has shown any glimmer of interest.
“I’ve been old school,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman explained at the G.M. meetings earlier this month. “There’s been an understanding for years that the amateur market in Japan has really been off limits.
“We’ve not scouted Tazawa because we haven’t scouted the amateur market. I couldn’t tell you how good he is.”
The other non-participant in the Tazawa game has been super-agent Scott Boras, who represents Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
It seemed that Boras might make a play to become a powerful force in Japan, trying to represent top players coming to Major League Baseball, when he became Matsuzaka’s representative. But since Matsuzaka received “just” a six-year, $52 million deal (far less than he might have earned as a free agent) after the Sox acquired his rights through the posting process, Boras seems to be treating the market in Japan with skepticism.
“We look at the Japanese market with great scrutiny,” Boras said at the G.M. meetings. “Our participation is going to be very limited.”
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE NPB?
As Cashman noted, there has been a longstanding, unofficial agreement between the NPB and Major League Baseball that the two countries would steer clear of each others’ amateur talent. Nonetheless, the defection of a top Japanese amateur had been contemplated before.
In the ‘90s, some teams explored the possibility of wooing either Daisuke Matsuzaka or Koji Uehara to come straight to the States. But both elected to start their pro careers in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) League.
Tazawa, however, asked that NPB teams not draft him last month, and the league acceded to his request. The only penalty imposed by the NPB was to say that Tazawa—or any other player who bypasses the draft—will have to wait at least three years after playing for an international club before returning to the NPB.
“Here you have the situation where, merely by request, the Japanese system allowed him to be free,” mused Boras. “(Tazawa) must be very persuasive, in addition to being talented.”
Tazawa would be the most highly regarded Japanese pitcher ever to make the jump straight from an amateur career in the majors to the U.S. The only penalty would be a slap on the wrist. The appeal of staying in Japan to play baseball has clearly diminished in recent years, as evidenced by the departures of prominent players such as Matsuzaka. Yet the NPB does not seem to have a blueprint in place to elevate the appeal of remaining in Japan.
“We might be seeing the end of the NPB,” said the baseball official in Japan. “If he is successful and starts this trend of going to MLB straight, then the foundation of the Japanese baseball is rocked and NPB will be in a serious danger if they don’t do anything about it.
“What makes me mad is, everybody knew, ever since Nomo and Ichiro and Matsui, that this day of seeing a top amateur player leaving for the States would come sooner or later,” he continued. “It’s embarrassing enough that they didn’t do anything at all to prevent what we all knew was going to happen eventually, and now what they came up was this (‘Tazawa rule’)? It’s really horrible.”
Most likely, Boras suggested, the NPB and MLB will explore changes to their agreement in order to stem the flow of amateur free agents between the country. All the same, it suggests a weakness in the NPB that it would essentially be at the mercy of the good will of another league to stop players from jumping to the U.S.
In the absence of cooperation between the two leagues, it would appear inevitable that more and more players would go straight from Japanese high schools and colleges to the U.S.
There have, of course, been other suggestions about a huge wave of talented players coming from Japan to the U.S. Thus far, those predictions have been greatly exaggerated, with player movement occurring incrementally, rather than en masse.
Still, if the Japanese amateur market is now open to be raided, there is at least a possibility that the number of players from Japan could one day approach those of Latin American markets. That could spell a huge danger for a professional baseball league that now features some of the best talent in the world.
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.