Friday most likely marks the end of a 21-year career for John Smoltz, one of the great pitchers of his era and a near-certain Hall of Famer. And while seeing Smoltz depart is a saddening event for many in baseball who watched him for so many years, it's time to move on from the old and welcome the new.
The roster spot freed up by the fading Smoltz will certainly not go to waste. By designating Smoltz for assignment, the Red Sox were able to call up Junichi Tazawa, a crafty 23-year-old right-hander with a bright future.
Tazawa first made a name for himself in 2007, when he pitched for the Japanese national team at the Baseball World Cup in Taiwan at the age of 21. The following year, he put up a 1.02 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 88 1/3 innings for the team Nippon Oil.
His impressive resume and gaudy numbers, especially at a young age, were more than enough to catch the eye of Red Sox GM Theo Epstein last winter. Tazawa signed on Dec. 4, 2008, to come to Boston, where he will earn $3.3 million over three years.
If Tazawa turns out to be a star, that's quite a modest price.
Tazawa is unlike most Japanese imports in that he never played professionally in Japan — Nippon Oil is unaffiliated with Nippon Professional Baseball. So while Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima and the like were able to hone their skills by regularly facing elite competition overseas, Tazawa didn't have that opportunity.
He's made up for it by performing beautifully in the States. After being optioned to Portland on March 22, Tazawa has worked his way up the ranks, posting a 2.57 ERA in 18 starts with the Sea Dogs. He struck out 88 batters and walked 26 in 98 innings. He made the jump to Pawtucket last month, and the results were just as good — two starts, three earned runs in 11 1/3 innings to go with six strikeouts and a walk.
Tazawa projects to be a solid starting pitcher in the major leagues. Like Matsuzaka, he's not an imposing guy physically — he stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 180 pounds. But his delivery is dynamic and at times downright freaky, with a Tim Lincecum-esque whipping motion that can produce dazzling results.
His fastball is good, but it's the secondary stuff that can set him apart. Tazawa has a good curveball, a good slider and a great forkball that really makes him a one-of-a-kind hurler in the Red Sox organization. He can locate all four pitches well and paint corners with ease — with an approach like that, he's bound to find success in the major leagues.
It's telling that the Red Sox turned to Tazawa for a promotion this August over Michael Bowden, who had previously enjoyed a cup of coffee in the major leagues this season. It suggests that they think he's the more major league-ready of the two.
There's an immediate need in Boston for a live arm. Smoltz has gotten the DFA treatment, Justin Masterson was traded last week, and Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield both remain on the DL. The Red Sox are left with just four starters, and they dipped into their farm system looking for someone who can compete right now.
Apparently, Tazawa is that guy. Given his results so far, that's not hard to believe.
Given the current state of the Red Sox, it wouldn't be surprising to see Tazawa slotted into Smoltz's spot in the rotation right away. Mark your calendars — Tuesday night at Fenway Park, when the Red Sox take on the Tigers.
In the long run, Tazawa could have a very productive career with the Red Sox — he has the potential to make a big impact. But in the short run, the Sox need him to produce right now. For a team that's battling to hold onto a playoff spot, there's a lot to be said for looking at the little picture.
The Red Sox are turning over a new leaf. John Smoltz moves on, and his brief stint with the Red Sox is now in the past.
Junichi Tazawa is the future.
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