Tazawa may start a trend
Pitcher would be first Japanese prospect to join Majors
With the success of veteran Japanese players in North American baseball, the next step was bound to be a Major League team attempting to sign a major Japanese prospect.
What we have here is slightly larger than that -- an attempt by several Major League teams to sign a major Japanese prospect. The prospect in this case is 22-year-old pitcher Junichi Tazawa, a right-hander with a mid-90s mph fastball.
Reports out of Japan indicate that at least four clubs -- the Red Sox, the Rangers, the Mariners and the Braves -- are in on the bidding for Tazawa. The Red Sox may have the inside track, with one Japanese newspaper reporting that Boston has made a $6 million contract offer to Tazawa.
Other reports clearly indicate the dismay of some Japanese baseball officials regarding the American pursuit of Tazawa. Major League clubs historically have limited their pursuit of Japanese talent to veteran players. Some of the largest stars of the Japanese game now are playing in the big leagues, but the signing of a Japanese prospect would take the recruitment of Japanese talent to a completely different level.
Still, it was almost inevitable. One universal baseball truth around the globe is that no team with any serious analytical ability believes it actually has enough pitching. A growing number of Major League teams have addressed that issue with the addition of Japanese hurlers.
Previously, Japanese players had to play nine seasons in professional Japanese baseball before they could be signed by Major League teams. It would be understandable how Japanese teams might regard the signing of Japanese prospects negatively, but for North American teams, the pursuit of these same players makes perfect sense. Young Japanese pitchers would have longer Major League careers than veteran Japanese pitchers, and perhaps more to the point, they would be much, much cheaper.
The Red Sox offer a classic example. Two Japanese pitchers -- starter Daisuke Matsuzaka and lefty setup man Hideki Okajima -- have been integral parts of Boston's success, including the ultimate success, the 2007 World Series championship.
In the case of Matsuzaka, the Red Sox had to pay a posting fee to the Japanese team that owned his rights, the Seibu Lions. With Matsuzaka not only being a living legend in Japanese baseball, but also having won the Most Valuable Player Award in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, his stock was soaring. The Red Sox had to pay the Seibu club $51.1 million merely for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka.
Boston eventually signed Matsuzaka to a six-year, $52 million contract. In the current pitching market, that's reasonable, but with the posting fee, the total Matsuzaka cost came to $103.1 million.
The eventual cost of signing Tazawa may seem high for an amateur pitcher, but it will be a small fraction of what Matsuzaka cost the Red Sox. And it is not as though Tazawa is only a pleasant rumor. He has been heavily scouted by Major League teams. There is widespread agreement on his considerable potential. He isn't being seriously pursued by several big league clubs on some sort of shared whim.
These days, with the cost of pitching being the one part of the American economy that is still trending upward, a contract for Tazawa that still is in the seven-figure range might seem like a relative bargain.
Tazawa would be a pioneer of sorts, as a Japanese baseball prospect coming to America, rather than an established veteran making the transition. But if he were to sign with the Red Sox, he would be coming to an organization in which Japanese pitchers obviously have flourished. Matsuzaka had an 18-2 record in 2008 and was fourth in the voting for the American League Cy Young Award.
The signing of Tazawa by a Major League club would be a break with precedent, but it would be the next logical step in the global, never-ending search for viable pitching talent. In the current market, Tazawa is not merely seen as an amateur pitcher from a nation in which amateur pitchers had not previously been signed, but as a pitcher of significant talent who will come at a relatively inexpensive cost.
Would this signing of a prospect be an attack on Japanese baseball? You can understand why the Japanese might regard it in that way. But it is also a tribute to Japanese baseball, because without the considerable success of Japanese pitchers who have made the transition to the Majors, there wouldn't be a pursuit of Tazawa.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.