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With a little help, Sox land Tazawa

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / December 5, 2008
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When the Red Sox signed Daisuke Matsuzaka two years ago, they thought it might help them economically, broadening their appeal to Japan. While that hasn't exactly put dollars in the Sox' coffers, the off-field ramifications were apparent yesterday at a press conference at Fenway Park.

That was where the Sox announced the signing of Japanese amateur Junichi Tazawa, who inked a major league deal worth $3.3 million, though he is likely to begin his career in the minor leagues.

"When we signed Daisuke, we did so for baseball reasons," general manager Theo 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, around the world, really, and that someday there might be some ancillary benefits to signing him. Certainly because of Junichi's admiration for Daisuke and the Red Sox' increased presence, perhaps we saw some of that benefit here."

As Tazawa said, through interpreter Kerianne Panos, "[Matsuzaka] has a presence which is even more above the clouds, which means he has been a great hero of mine and I hold him in very, very high esteem."

That might have made the difference for the Sox. Tazawa, 22, reportedly turned down a more lucrative offer from the Rangers. Tazawa cited the Sox' development program and their position as the first to scout him, in addition to the presence of Japanese players in the organization.

Tazawa's three-year major league deal contains a $1.8 million signing bonus, with salaries of $450,000 in 2009, $500,000 in 2010, and $550,000 in 2011. The Red Sox will retain his rights as either a pre-arbitration-eligible player or an arbitration-eligible player, depending on the amount of time he spends in the majors.

Tazawa is likely to begin the season in Double A, though the Sox will make that determination in spring training. He will be a starter initially, although the Sox believe he can pitch in relief.

Having spent much of his recent time pitching out of the stretch, Tazawa will have to work on the set position, Epstein said. But the general manager offered up a scouting report that spoke glowingly of the Sox' new acquisition, calling him a "very, very promising prospect," whom the team saw 20 times in person the past 12 or 13 months.

"He pitches comfortably in the low 90s with a very effective command and the ability to use that fastball to all quadrants of the strike zone," Epstein said. "Four-seam and two-seam, though primarily four-seam [fastball]. He's got a good split-fingered pitch; it's his offspeed that's swing and miss. He's got two breaking balls, slider and a curveball. His slider is a plus pitch as well.

"Command of all his pitches, not just for strikes, but he can hit his spots. He's got outstanding makeup on the mound. He's a competitor. He's very aggressive, attacks the strike zone, attacks hitters, pitches in a fearless manner."

Tazawa, who asked the professional teams in Japan not to draft him so he could go to the United States, was playing for the Nippon Oil ENEOS team in the Japan Industrial League. He was 13-1 with 5 saves and a 0.80 ERA in 21 games (11 starts), striking out 114 and walking 15 in 113 innings. Not that the Industrial League is the majors.

Few players have gone directly from the amateur ranks in Japan to the major leagues. Epstein cited more than 50 amateur players who have signed with major league clubs, though according to the Associated Press, just two have made it to the majors - Kazuhito Tadano, who pitched for the Indians, and Mac Suzuki, who played for six seasons.

The Sox' latest signee would like to add his name to that short list.

"The reason I came directly to the US is I wanted to try to play here," Tazawa said. "I wanted to challenge myself to do more in the United States."

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