Though it feels like a lot longer, Koji Uehara has only been in Boston for two years. Even though I know that it is true, that fact is kind of amazing. I'm not sure I can ever remember a relief pitcher - or any player for that matter - making such a large impression in just two seasons. He built himself into a mini-legend in Boston with his out-of-this-world play and fun-loving attitude along the way. Unfortunately, the soon-to-be-40-year-old is a free agent at the end of this season, and there's a chance that he'll be playing in a new uniform in 2015. He had a rough end to his season, and it finally looked like fatigue was catching up to him. If Uehara does leave, that leaves a big hole at the back of Boston's bullpen. There will be many options to fill that hole, but the first chance should go to Junichi Tazawa.
Ever since becoming a mainstay in Boston's bullpen, Tazawa has been great. He's made 179 appearances since 2012, totaling 175-1/3 innings, and is the owner of a 2.62 ERA, a 156 ERA+. He's struck out over a batter an inning, while walking just 1.7 batters every nine innings. Although he has just one save in all of that time, he's proven time and time again that he's a great relief pitcher. He just hasn't had the chance to lock to the ninth inning on a consistent basis. If Uehara isn't in Boston next year, though, Tazawa deserves the chance now.
Photo Credit: Rich Gagnon
Although he doesn't blow people away with 100+ mile per hour fastballs or rack up K/9's in the teens, Tazawa has one very elite skill that makes him a great candidate to close. He controls the strike zone. While he's nowhere near Uehara's level of K/BB madness, he's no slouch himself. Consider that over the last three seasons - which cover all the years Tazawa has been a full-time reliever - he finds himself fourth among all qualified relievers in K/BB. He trails just Uehara, Sean Doolittle and Mark Melancon. This is an extremely important quality for a late-inning reliever to have. Looking at last season's save leaderboard, just two of the top-10 pitchers had a K/BB ratio below 3.0, and just one more had one below 4.0. It doesn't mean Tazawa is guaranteed for success, but it gives him a hell of a start.
Of course, it's not all roses for the 28-year-old. There are surely reasons that make it scary to envision him closing out games to start next season. Most notably would be that he has a tendency to get hit hard. Although batted ball data is always a bit shaky, it's startling to see that the right-hander has given up line drives at the second-highest rate of any qualified reliever over the last three years. This is part of the reason he gives up so many hits, never allowing a batting average on balls in play under .300 in the last three years. It's also why over one-third of the hits he's allowed have gone for extra bases. That's a scary problem to have late in games.
However, there are a few reasons why this shouldn't pose a huge problem to giving Tazawa the closer job in Uehara's absence. This first is Boston's potential outfield defense. Obviously, we aren't completely sure what the outfield alignment will look like come Opening Day, but there is a good chance of solid glove work being done out there on a nightly basis. With Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Yoenis Cespedes and Shane Victorino all possibly holding down a spot, having someone give up a lot of balls in the air doesn't seem quite as scary.
In addition to that, the Red Sox have plenty of backup candidates on their own roster. If Tazawa proves to be better suited for a set-up role, they can have the next man up mentality with many of their other relievers. Edward Mujica struggled to start last year, but he settled down later in the season. He has closer experience and is also one of the best pitchers in the game at controlling the strike zone. Many of Boston's young starters could play themselves out the rotation sooner rather than later, and many could make good high-leverage pitchers. It's not too difficult to imagine any one of Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Brandon Workman or Anthony Ranaudo stepping into the closer role mid-season and flourishing. They also have Heath Hembree, who figures to spend his first real time in a major-league bullpen and could have the arm for the ninth inning. There are also some free agents out there who could be sgned as set-up men but eventually step into a closer role, such as Sergio Romo, Burke Badenhop or Pat Neshek. The point is, the Red Sox have a lot of fall back plans.
Despite his poor finish, plan A remains to bring Koji Uehara back. He's still a fantastic pitcher, and a full offseason of rest should help him get back to that level. However, that is no guarantee, and they need a back up option. They don't need to spend big money on someone like David Robertson, though. Junichi Tazawa has done plenty in his time as a reliever to earn a shot at the ninth inning. His tendency to give up balls in the air is scary, but the outfield defense will help with that, as will his ability to control the zone. If he fails, they have plenty of other options, but he at least deserves a chance. Just make sure to sit him in Toronto.