No team has been more active in free agency than the Miami Marlins. They wrapped up their 2016 schedule with obvious run prevention issues, and they’ve chosen to address them with a combination of buy-low candidates and veterans.
Miami’s first signing was its most expensive—two years and $22 million for Edinson Volquez. The Marlins fantasized about breaking the bank for a superstar closer at the Winter Meetings, but ultimately had to settle for quieter one-year deals with Dustin McGowan, New Hampshire’s own Jeff Locke and Clayton Kershaw whisperer A.J. Ellis. The addition of right-hander Junichi Tazawa is the club’s fifth free-agent move. That’s more than anybody else in baseball has completed this offseason, per MLB Trade Rumors.
Forget everything you know about how Japanese pros establish themselves in the major leagues, because Tazawa went through the anti-Ichiro experience.
“I never had an interest in the game over there,” he told The New York Times about playing in the United States. “I guess that’s mostly because I never imagined I had the talent to consider such a thing.” Undrafted by Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) out of high school, Tazawa latched on with an unaffiliated minor league. He first captured the imagination of scouts as a 21-year-old in 2007. While participating in an amateur tournament, his fastball shockingly clocked as high as 97 mph. Even he “thought the speed gun must be broken.”
But parlaying that performance into a full-time job wasn’t so simple. The Times spoke with general managers Brian Cashman (New York Yankees) and Omar Minaya (New York Mets) in 2008, who both seemed reluctant to outbid Japanese teams for one of their homegrown players. Doing so would violate the gentleman’s agreement between MLB and NPB to facilitate player movement among themselves, rather than compete against each other.
Ultimately, the Boston Red Sox took the plunge that December, committing to Tazawa for three years and $3.3 million. Although it was a major league deal, they eased him into their organization at Double-A and spent four months grooming him as starter prior to his August 2009 promotion.
He debuted as a walk-off loser, allowing a 15th-inning home run to Alex Rodriguez. Baseball-Reference.com only found 43 other pitchers since 1913—including Fernando Rodney!—who suffered the same fate in their first games.
Tazawa’s career went downhill pretty quickly from there. In 25.1 IP as a rookie, he posted a 7.46 ERA, 5.54 FIP and .997 OPS against. He underwent Tommy John surgery the following April and needed the entire 2010 season to rehab. The Red Sox recalled him to the majors in late 2011, but used him exclusively in relief down the stretch. That’s been his role ever since.
As you might suspect from his new $12 million contract, there’s been a rebound since then. Tazawa dominated in 2012 (1.43 ERA, 1.82 FIP, .558 OPS against in 44.0 IP), then starred on Boston’s 2013 World Series squad. He pitched in 13 games during that postseason run, tied with Koji Uehara for the team lead, and gave up just one run.
Some other interesting notes on the 30-year-old:
- Tazawa actually won’t be the first Japanese-born player to pitch for the Marlins. Remember? Ichiro Suzuki took the mound to record the final outs of the 2015 season.
- He owns a career 4.34 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Nobody in Marlins history has ever done that (minimum 100 innings with the team).
- During an uneven 2016 campaign, Tazawa had a 21-game streak—from late June to mid-September—of allowing at least one baserunner every time he took the mound. Among all MLB relievers, only Arquimedes Caminero and Michael Blazek went longer between perfect outings (25 games each), according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Youkoso to Miami, Junichi.