The Red Sox bullpen is in need of help. It's not that Boston lacks the pieces, it's just that they need to put them in place. Junichi Tazawa, a former starting pitching prospect, is being given a chance to show that he deserves to stick around, even though he was just called up to replace Mark Melancon while the righty fixes his mechanics in Pawtucket. While having an option might have been part of the appeal of recalling Tazawa, his arm also has a little something to do with it.
Tazawa was considered a candidate to be a solid back-end starter just a few years ago, before Tommy John surgery derailed his development. During his recovery from the procedure in 2011, the Red Sox switched him to relief. He made six starts with High-A Salem, then just two starts with Portland along with six relief appearances, and finally eight relief appearances and no starts with the Triple-A PawSox. He would finish the year in the majors thanks to expanded September rosters, and throw three innings in relief for a Red Sox club desperate to hold on to their ever-slimming lead in the standings.
While his numbers as a starter were good enough to get him attention as a prospect -- albeit a middling one -- the numbers he's produced during his short time in relief are far more fascinating. Between Portland, Pawtucket, and Boston, Tazawa has thrown 53 innings of relief, with 11 strikeouts per nine, 1.7 walks per nine, less than a homer per nine, and a 2.21 ERA.
Now, you can't just throw numbers from three different levels together -- especially when all but nine of those innings came in the minors -- and claim that it represents what Tazawa will do in the majors (just like that's not realistic for Rich Hill). But that's a lofty perch to fall from, and if Tazawa can continue to miss bats without issuing many walks while with the Red Sox, that's a huge boost to a bullpen in need of that very thing. He doesn't need to strike out a dozen hitters every nine innings for him to be useful.
Tazawa is an odd fit for relief, since he has such a wide repertoire of pitches, but that comes from his work as a starter. It's also a good problem to have, since Tazawa can focus on whichever pitches work for him while keeping hitters off balance. While his pitch sequencing earlier in his career made facing the same hitters difficult the second or third time through a lineup, that problem is less likely to pop up in a relief role.
It's tough to gauge just what the Red Sox have in Tazawa, but there's not much more he can do in the minors results-wise to show that he's earned a chance to pitch in the Red Sox bullpen. He helped out last night when Felix Doubront could only go six innings, pitching three frames while striking out four and picking up the rare save while up by seven runs. A little more of that, and it will be hard to send Tazawa back down when the opportunity arises.
By the same token, though, we're talking about a very limited number of innings. Just like a few frames isn't enough to condemn Alfredo Aceves -- or half-a-season made Matt Albers look like a reliable arm -- we can't just hand Tazawa the keys to all of the important moments. But from what we've seen of him, both in the majors and in the minors, there might be something here the Red Sox can use.