The 23-year-old right-hander was won over by the Red Sox after being the target of an abundance of Major League teams the winter before. Boston tossed $3.3 million at Tazawa with great expectations and very little experience. Not to mention, he was headed to one of the world’s most demanding sports markets in a different country.
While many pegged him to use 2009 as a transition year full of struggles and adaptation to the American game and lifestyle, the hurler wowed the franchise as he rose through the minors, starting in Portland where he notched a 9-5 record, a 2.57 ERA and spots in on the Futures All-Star team and Eastern League All-Star squad.
According to director of player development Mike Hazen, it all started with a strong first impression.
"I think the impression he made in big league camp last year was impressive, pretty hard to top," Hazen told the Providence Journal. "I think he just needs to do what he did last year – come in and pound the strike zone, which is exactly how he pitched through the minor league season last year."
Due to his success in Portland and injuries on the Red Sox staff, Boston decided to give him a shot in the big show. Taz was called up in early August and thrown right into the fire. And he got burned.
Sure enough, his first game was against the eventual world champion New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. It wasn’t just mop-up duty either. The first MLB batter he faced happened to be one of his childhood idols, Hideki Matsui, in the bottom of the 14th in a tie game. Tazawa eventually lost that game when he served up a two-run walkoff homer to Alex Rodriguez.
Unfortunately, that tough first taste set the tone for the remainder of his first season as he ended 2009 with a 2-3 record and 7.46 ERA. But the youngster is looking forward to bigger things in 2010.
"I think it will be easier, and I found some things that I’m going to change, and adjust – I found those this year, and I’ve got that now, so this year, I’m going to apply that," he said.
But will he be able to turn things around enough to make the opening day roster? Not yet, and especially not on this team. Even if he does churn out another strong spring training, it will mean nothing more than a confidence booster for the safety, insurance and depth of the Red Sox staff.
In many other clubs across the league, Tazawa would be a work in progress as a fifth starter, but the Red Sox already have arguably the deepest rotation in the big leagues.
Throwing him in the bullpen wouldn't be much better. Becoming a reliever would stump his growth as a pitcher – a starting pitcher – and only derail any momentum he had going forward. His only option would be in long relief, but even on teams with a weak starting staff, a "long reliever" is rarely needed.
Expect Tazawa to find a spot as Pawtucket’s ace. He’ll be in Boston’s back pocket should the team face another injury-plagued summer, and on the farm, he’ll be groomed into the hurler Hazen and the franchise expect him to become.
"Now, he’s more accustomed to throwing out of the windup – those types of things that we worked on last year, we won’t be working on." Hazen added. "Now, it’s about coming out and performing at big league camp, and we’ll see where we end up after that."
Tuesday, Feb. 2: How many positions will Bill Hall play?