One of the few bright spots during the train wreck that was the Boston Red Sox‘ 2012 season was the development and performance of Junichi Tazawa out of the bullpen.
Everything the Red Sox had evaluated and projected for Tazawa, coming over from Japan in 2008, finally came to fruition with the 26-year old right-hander finally reaching his potential.
Part of the reason Tazawa’s 2012 season was so impressive is that he had basically missed the prior two seasons due to Tommy John surgery. He underwent the ligament replacement surgery in April 2010, and didn’t pitch again at the major league level until the end of the 2011 season.
It has been quite a roller coaster ride for Tazawa since joining Boston. He shot through the Red Sox system in his first year after signing and reached the majors in August of 2009 after pitching very impressively in the minor leagues.
Tazawa was different in 2012. All three of his pitches played up and above their previous projections. His fastball was suddenly hitting 97 mph, his curveball was above-average, and his splitter was a strikeout pitch, averaging 9.0/strikeouts per nine innings.
The stuff was electric, and he also had almost pinpoint command as well, walking only five batters in 44 innings.
As the Red Sox move into 2013, they have potentially the deepest bullpen in the major leagues with the acquisition of Pittsburgh Pirates‘ closer Joel Hanrahan.
Last year’s closer, Andrew Bailey, will be returning as the eigth inning reliever this spring. Tazawa, along with the newly-signed Koji Uehara and the addition of Daniel Bard moving back to his area of success, gives the Sox power arms to shorten the game and hold leads.
This aspect can’t be overlooked, because the Red Sox desperately need their starting pitching to be more effective this year. Having pitchers who can come out of the pen and work out of tough situations can’t be overlooked.
Given the relative parity of the AL East this year, the Red Sox bullpen could play a huge role in the Sox contending in the division. Tazawa is likely to find himself as the setup man this season, working as an apprentice to Hanrahan while waiting his turn next season.
Having Japanese league veteran Uehara, as well as two established closers, will only help groom Tazawa to eventually become the closer.
The key will be to see if Tazawa can repeat his breakout performance again in 2013.
You can reach Jonathan Cullen:
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Writing about the Boston Red Sox at www.baseballslate.com