Junichi Tazawa, come on down!

… you’re the next closer for the Boston Red Sox!

Last night, the much-maligned Joel Hanrahan suffered an elbow strain while in the midst of blowing a save against the Twins at Fenway. Initial reports after the game were not positive with Hanrahan eschewing the clichéd “yeah, it’s a little tight, but I’ll be fine” and instead going with comments like “I threw the pitch and felt a little pull. My forearm went with the ball,” before eventually finishing the interview with “the pickoff at first, the ball barely got there. I threw one more. I couldn’t take it anymore.” Ouch. Those don’t sound like the comments of a man who thinks his removal from a tie game was an overly cautious one. With Hanrahan headed for an MRI today and quite likely to join fellow Boston late-inning reliever Andrew Bailey on the disabled list, the team’s bullpen depth, considered one of their key assets as recently as a week ago, is suddenly being tested.

Assuming Hanrahan is unavailable and the Red Sox steer clear of a committee, two candidates in their bullpen stand out as obvious options in the ninth inning: Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa. The 38-year-old Uehara flashes an 15%ish SwStr% and an elite 31.5%-3.7% K-BB% (elite-elite?) which is right in line with his career averages. These peripherals make him one of baseball’s top relievers (and a natural fit for high-leverage situations) but as I’ve noted in the Bullpen Report, manager John Farrell has expressed tentativeness about using him for more than an inning and back-to-back days. These restrictions make him ideal for use as a shutdown Jamesian “relief ace” but unsuitable for the traditional role of closer.

This naturally leaves us with Tazawa and it appears Farrell has followed the same train of logic. During an interview with the MLB Network earlier today, he went on record as saying he plans on moving Tazawa to the closer role while keeping Uehara in the 7th/8th innings. He cited Tazawa’s fastball and demeanor as two reasons he feels the Japanese import will be successful in high-pressure situations in a market that still laments the loss of Jonathan Papelbon.

Tazawa came over to the Sox from Japan as a 23-year-old in 2009, following in the more ballyhooed Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s footsteps. He spent the majority of his first professional season as a starter, even completing a meteoric rise through the system by seeing time in the majors at the end of the season. However, early in 2010 Tazawa was forced to undergo reconstructive Tommy John surgery, keeping him out until the first half of 2011. After starting a few games in the low minors, Tazawa was eventually moved to the bullpen full-time once he hit AAA Pawtucket and he has been there ever since.

Last season, Tazawa enjoyed a breakthrough year, putting up an impressive 26.2% K% while walking an absurdly low 2.9% of the batters he faced after he was recalled mid-season. That success has carried over (thus far) into 2013 with him striking out 18 of the 55 batters he has faced, only allowing three free passes. As Farrell remarked, his fastball velocity (93.8 mph and climbing) makes him one of the harder throwers in the league, putting him in the top 30% of big league relievers (unlike Uehara who actually sports below-average velocity). He has been pumping the heater nearly 80% of the time in 2013, which has helped him improve the effectiveness of his changeup, seeing the SwStr% on the pitch (SSS!) jump to 40% in 2013 from last year’s already outstanding 20% mark.

If Tazawa has an Achilles’ heel, it would be that he struggles to keep the ball on the ground. As with many high-strikeout guys, he’s not known as a wormburner and his career 35% GB% backs his reputation. If you subscribe to the theory which is the secret sauce to xFIP (pitchers generally (see, exceptions, Matt Cain) have little control over their HR/FB%), Tazawa’s home run rate might end up a little more inflated than you’d think just because of the volume of outfield flies he induces. This doesn’t affect his stats in aggregate but may inevitably lead to an ugly outing here or there where a single longball bites him. Don’t panic.

Unfortunately for fantasy owners thinking “waiver wire bank!” Tazawa’s rates have been so good the last two years he is likely gone in deeper leagues, especially those which count holds. However, you should still make like Usain Bolt and see if he’s available on your wire in all formats — he has short-term top-5 closer upside as the ninth inning man for one of the better teams (currently) in baseball. Unlike Aroldis Chapman, circa 2012, he still faces other competition for the role if the “proven closers” named Hanrahan and Bailey get over their arm woes, so there’s no guarantee he can run away and hide with the job. It’s altogether possible that, even if Tazawa is effective, he’ll be moved back into a setup role (where he can work multiple innings if needed) when one of the two return from injury. However, given the potential for the injuries to Boston’s “big money men” to cost them weeks– if not more– of active time, owners who speculated on Tazawa prior to today (or beat the rush to the free agent pool) are probably finding it nearly impossible to wipe the grin off their faces right now.



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There are few things Colin loves more in life than a pitcher with a single-digit BB%. Find him on Twitter @soxczar.


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Todd
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Todd

I’ve been itching to pick up Tazawa for days. Finally did this morning, a couple hours before the news broke. Winner!

Todd
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Todd

Although, I also already had Andrew Bailey, so also sort of not winner.

Brian
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Brian

Todd, do you think I should hold onto Uehara and Bailey in addition to Tazawa in a 10 team mixed roto?

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