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THE HOT CORNER: What can we expect from Tazawa?

by Jim Allen (Dec 4, 2008)

Just how good is Junichi Tazawa? The Boston Red Sox, the same organization that saw Hideki Okajima as major league ready and who believed Daisuke Matsuzaka would live up to his pre-post hype, are now placing their bets on the amateur right-hander.

ESPN's Keith Law has written that Tazawa is the equivalent of a first- or second-round draft pick in the U.S., while one scout who saw him numerous times projected the 22-year-old as being analogous to an eighth- or ninth-rounder out of an American university. The scout said such a pick would not be worth the kind of money (4 million dollars) the media were talking about a few weeks ago.

The Red Sox obviously saw something that fellow didn't. Given the track record of their big scouting guns, Craig Shipley and John Deeble, one is inclined to give the Sox the benefit of the doubt.

People can and will argue about Tazawa's potential from here to Boston. But estimating what Tazawa can learn and how he can physically mature is a scout's job. If a scout watched Tazawa carefully enough and could compare him to pitchers with similar size, speed and deliveries, he could make educated guesses about likely paths Tazawa's career might follow.

The rest of us have to settle for what is known: how he has measured up against his competition.

Tazawa's done extremely well against corporate league hitters, which is exactly what he was supposed to do. One cannot discount his performance simply because the level of competition he faced was not that high.

That was the fallacy that led some major leaguers in 2000 to question the sanity level in Seattle when the Mariners spent 13.25 million dollars just to negotiate with Ichiro Suzuki. To some big leaguers on tour here that November, Suzuki wasn't worth it because he hadn't proved himself at the major league level.

There used to be a common misperception that Japan's pro leagues were on a minor league level and the stars here were thus not as good as those in the majors. However, the Central and Pacific leagues are less competitive only because the worst players here are nowhere good enough for the majors.

There is no upward ceiling to the possible quality of a player coming out of Asia's best leagues, although a player moving to a more competitive league will post less impressive numbers. Facing fewer weak players in a larger league, where you don't get to study up on them and beat them like a drum all season, it is no surprise that Japan's stars put up poorer numbers in the majors.

Ichiro has done remarkably well, but he is no exception to the rule. He lost 6 percent of his Japan batting average, 34 percent of his walks and 59 percent of his extra bases. Ichiro was so good he could shed a large chunk of offense and still be the best player on a major league team.

Success in Seattle was no real surprise because of Ichiro's history of sustained excellence under well-documented conditions. We knew who he hit off in Japan and the effects his park and league had on offensive production. Tazawa's track record is nowhere near as clear-cut.

Unlike the CL and PL, where many major league-caliber stars still play, the quality of corporate ball is constrained in the same way as the U.S. minors because the very best players move on. Although failure at the corporate league level would tend to disprove any notion Tazawa has star potential, his success is no proof of quality.

Tazawa was expected to be a top draft pick in Japan, causing one to question how other top-round pitchers his age have done here. The answer, surprisingly enough, is not very well.

Since 1983, 13 pitchers his age were signed as either first-round picks or amateur free agents. Seven failed to win 20 games in their entire careers, three have won 50 or more games, and only one can be considered a star. The lone success story belongs to the man who had a chance to go Tazawa's way in 1999, Koji Uehara. Instead, Uehara joined the Yomiuri Giants and won 112 games.

Now that the 33-year-old Uehara is likely joining Tazawa in the States for next season, it will be interesting to see which of the two ends up with the better major league career.

We all know who the Sox are pulling for.


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