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Can Junichi Tazawa take back the setup role?

With the acquisition of Carson Smith and Craig Kimbrel, Junichi Tazawa likely finds himself out of the 8th inning. But that doesn't mean he won't make his way back by season's end.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Junichi Tazawa finds himself in a drastically different position from the one he's gotten used to these past few seasons. For the first time, Tazawa is not the prime set-up man for the closer. For the first time, Tazawa won't be brought on in every single tight eighth inning. Red Sox fans will no longer need to cringe every time he comes into the game against his kryptonite--I refer, of course, to the Blue Jays-- to face Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion.

Instead, that cringing against the Blue Jays will come in the middle innings, where he will likely find his home in the Red Sox bullpen out of spring training.

Dave Dombrowski seemingly went out of his way to knock down the notion that he can't build bullpens by going out and trading for both Craig Kimbrel, one of the elite closers in the game, and Carson Smith, one of the top set-up men in baseball in 2015. That combined with former closer Koji Uehara has the makings of a pretty great relief group for the end of games.

There are, of course, some risks with this group. Smith really only has one year under his belt and relievers are a notoriously fickle bunch. It's not a guarantee that he replicates the season he put together in 2015 with the Seattle Mariners. Uehara, on the other hand, is 40 years old. While his success is not predicated on a high-velocity fastball, that sort of age will wear down on anyone, and especially given that a broken wrist ended his season last year, injuries can't be taken out of consideration.

Which brings us to Tazawa, who had a relatively lackluster 2015 season where it appeared that the nuclear pace in which the Red Sox utilized the 29-year-old reliever year after year finally caught up to him. Tazawa really struggled to throw strikes in the latter part of the season (as Matt Collins covered in this space), which played a major role in his lack of success. Those numbers were directly reflected by Tazawa's K-BB%, which was at its lowest mark since he made his major league debut.

Interestingly, many of the peripheral numbers that usually suggest a reliever's decline didn't show up with Tazawa. The velocity on the fastball remained pretty consistent from his 2013 and 2014, the amount of hard contact similarly remained steady, hitters made contact at a similar clip and his swinging-strike percentage remained just about even from his 2014 numbers.

As the season wore down, Tazawa pitched in significantly fewer games, making just four appearances in September before being shut down due to arm fatigue. The month represented the first time since 2012 (with the exception of one-game March in 2014) that Tazawa was so rarely seen. Simply put, he's had very little opportunity to rest during the season since he was converted to the bullpen in 2012. This was the first such chance outside of the offseason, and unfortunately it came at the tail end of a losing season.

Now, with a full offseason of rest, a plethora of new late-inning relievers to share the load, and the idea that he's going to be pitching in fewer high-leverage situations, Tazawa could reasonably return to the numbers that made him one of the most dependable and valuable set-up men in baseball over the last three seasons. Since 2013, Tazawa ranks 27th among all relievers in baseball in fWAR. In that same time span, Tazawa has appeared in 203 games, a mark only 18 other relievers in baseball topped. Not only has Tazawa pitched a lot over the past three season, he's been one of the best at coming out in relief.

Admittedly, it's hard for me to believe that everything with the Red Sox bullpen is going to go perfectly. Relievers are just about as consistent as Nicolas Cage (for every Adaptation, we've got The Wicker Man). We all remember how Mark Melancon was expected to be a big part of the bullpen when he was dealt for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland from the Astros and subsequently gave up what seemed like a bazillion home runs before re-establishing himself as one of the best with the Pirates because of course. While we know what to expect out of Kimbrel, we can't really say the same for Smith, who only has one full big league season under his belt and has never pitched in a pressure-packed market like Boston (which was arguably responsible for Melancon's failure in Boston and, subsequently, Tazawa's first consistent shot in the majors). We really can't expect much with Uehara given his age and the fact that he's coming off an injury.

And so we have Tazawa, coming off the most rest he's had since his first season as a reliever. There are no signs of physical decline with Tazawa, despite his relatively poor performance last season. As long as the velocity remains consistent, it's not hard to imagine a scenario where Tazawa, dependent on the performances of Smith and Uehara--or perhaps even Kimbrel, knock on wood--suddenly returns to being a set-up man, even if he doesn't necessarily start the season in that role.