The Red Sox today formally announced the signing of 22-year-old Japanese pitcher Junichi Tazawa, who is expected to start his career in the minor leagues.
“The reason I came directly to the [United States] is I wanted to try to play here,” Tazawa said through a translator at a press conference at Fenway Park today. “I wanted to challenge myself.”
Tazawa is expected to begin next season in Double-A Portland, where he will be groomed for a spot in the rotation, but could soon join the big club.
“He projects to be very versatile, but we’re going to start him off as a starting pitcher,” Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. “We’ll certainly give him every chance to start.”
Tazawa, a righthander, reached an agreement with the Sox on a three-year contract earlier this week, and the Globe’s Amalie Benjamin and Tony Massarotti have learned that the total value of the contract is $3.3 million.
Tazawa will receive a $1.8 million bonus, with salaries of $450,000 in 2009, $500,000 in ’10, and $550,000 in ’11. The Sox retain his rights as a pre-arbitration eligible or arbitration eligible player until 2014.
“To me this is a story about Junichi wanting to challenge himself at the highest level of baseball. He had that desire. He expressed his desire,” Epstein said. “We wanted to provide that opportunity.”
The pitcher, who has drawn some comparisons to former major leaguer Shigetoshi Hasegawa, elected to forgo a professional career in Japan so he could play in the United States.
Epstein said Boston scouts watched Tazawa more than 20 times since last November and his velocity has improved over time. He throws in the low 90s, with a changeup, curveball and slider that he can throw for strikes.
“He can hit his spots, and he’s got outstanding makeup on the mound,” Epstein said. “We think he’s a solid prospect. Where he starts out remains to be seen.”
Though Tazawa was pursued by several teams and offered more money by at least one –the Texas Rangers — the pitcher is said to idolize Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka and reportedly was interested in pitching only for the Sox.
“I think there is a definite influence of having Daisuke Matsuzaka play here,” Tazawa said. “To me he is the best player and to be able to learn from him is an incredible opportunity for me.”
Boston’s presence in Japan has skyrocketed since signing Hideki Okajima and Matsuzaka after the 2006 season. Last spring, the club opened its season with two games against the Oakland Athletics in Tokyo.
“When we signed Daisuke, it was for baseball reasons. We saw it as a unique opportunity to acquire a 26-year-old, top-of-the-rotation starter,” Epstein 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, and that someday there might be some ancillary benefits.”
Tazawa joins the Red Sox organization after a four-year amateur career with the Nippon Oil ENEOS of the Japan Industrial League.
This past season, Tazawa was 13-1 with five saves and a 0.80 ERA in 21 games, 11 starts. He struck out 114 batters and walked just 15 over 113 innings.
In September, Tazawa helped Nippon Oil win the 32-team Intercity Baseball Tournament for the first time in 13 years. He appeared in all five of the ENEOS’ games from September 1-9, and won the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award, going 4-0 with one save and a 1.27 ERA.
With the addition of Tazawa, Boston now has 39 players on its major league roster.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.