One Tommy John surgery and a move to the bullpen relieved from his underwhelming Red Sox debut, Junichi Tazawa emerged as one of the best arms in a stacked Boston bullpen.
Junichi Tazawa was everything the 2012 Red Sox were not. He was young, exciting, fun to watch, quiet off the field, dominant on it, and just generally full of promise for the future (though the Sox gave us some of that come late August).
We hadn't really had a good look at Junichi Tazawa since 2009. And while the young righty gave us the occasional good result back then (six shutout innings on August 22 against the Yankees stand out), on the whole he didn't look like much of a pitcher. Throwing flat fastballs with off-speed pitches that were not nearly deceptive enough to make the hard stuff play with any consistency, Tazawa looked like a man in need of serious seasoning.
The thing is, he hasn't had all that much time to learn in between then and now thanks to the injury and resulting Tommy John surgery which cost him his 2010 season. 56 innings in 2011, though, and a move to the bullpen seems to have been all he needed.
That flat fastball? It's got some extra kick now, and can have some nasty armside run. The changeup seems to have developed into a legitimate out pitch, with Tazawa picking up plenty of strikeouts. And while the rest of his repertoire, particularly the curveball, can be very good when they're on, as a reliever Tazawa doesn't need those offerings to succeed.
In his 44 innings of work last year, Tazawa looked like one of the best relievers in the American League. He kept his ERA to 1.43, and struck out nine batters for every one he walked. Is he that dominant? It's possible that the league just needs some time to take notice of and adjust to him, but actually watching him pitch it's hard to question that he's got the ability to be a force out of the pen.
The Sox have a lot of talent in the bullpen this year, and with both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey on the roster, it's hard to see him any higher than third on the depth chart, probably tied with Craig Breslow depending on whether the inning is heavy on lefties or righties. Still shy of arbitration in 2013, though, the Sox have plenty of years to get Tazawa and his role squared away.