Since the non-waiver trade deadline is on Friday, we're going to continue to look at some of the Nats potential trade targets over the rest of the week. As I noted in the comment section last week, I'm certainly not going to like all of the possible trade options equally. We'll keep rolling through relievers to start, since the prevailing notion seems to be that the Nats are after relief help more than anything else. The Nats need help offensively as well, but the buzz is that they feel like they're going to be adding four bats the rest of the way when Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman get healthy. Let's start with a link to the other relievers that we've already looked at....
- Aroldis Chapman
- Craig Kimbrel
- Francisco Rodriguez
- Jonathan Papelbon
- Brad Ziegler
- John Axford
Each of the pitchers we're going to look at today are certainly worth their own individual looks. Since they play for the same team, though, let's combine Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara into one post. Both would seem to be available, as the last place Red Sox are 13 games out in the AL East and 9 games back of the second wildcard spot. They indicated a willingness to sell when they dumped Shane Victorino's salary on the Angels for a non-prospect in Josh Rutledge on Monday night.
Of course, let's not take that deal with Anaheim to mean that the Red Sox are just dumping salary. They cut a significant amount of it for the rest of the year, as Victorino is in the final year of a 3 year/$39 million contract. Still, Victorino has not only been ineffective this season in Boston... He was also blocking a pair of outfielders who may still be a big part of the Red Sox future (Rusney Castillo, who probably will be.... Jackie Bradley, Jr., who looks fringy at this point). Tazawa and Uehara are both fantastic relievers who rank in the top fifteen among RP WAR in 2015 and are under club control for next season.
Since they're each worth their own look, we're going to go over them separately in terms of what they would bring to the Nats....
Some background on Junichi Tazawa
Junichi Tazawa isn't your typical MLB player from Japan. When he was 22 years old, Tazawa requested that NPB teams didn't draft him so that he could bypass the wait/posting system and try his hand at making it in America. He signed with the Red Sox that December as an international free agent. Tazawa began as a starter in the Red Sox system, reaching the upper levels immediately. He even pitched his way to Boston in his first pro season, throwing 25 innings in six appearances (four starts), though he wasn't particularly effective (7.46 ERA, 5.54 FIP, 4.62 K/9).
Unfortunately, Tazawa underwent Tommy John surgery in his second pro season. Upon returning in 2011, Tazawa made eight starts in the minors before being moved to the bullpen full-time. Tazawa got a cup of coffee with the Red Sox bullpen in that 2011 season, but didn't really stick in the majors until 2012. The former starter began as the long man and was incredibly effective. He finished with a 1.43 ERA (1.82 FIP) in 44 innings, but only finished with five holds and one three inning save in his first MLB season as a reliever. Since 2013, Tazawa has worked more in a setup capacity. He's notched 55 holds over the past three seasons with a 2.97 ERA (2.96 FIP) and a 178:36 strikeout to walk ratio in 173 innings.
Tazawa's stuff also isn't exactly reminiscent of the typical NPB pitchers that come over to the U.S. Sure... Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka may have changed the perception when it comes to velocity and pure stuff from NPB pitchers, but many of the earlier Japanese starters who came to North America didn't really have a big fastball. They relied on a variety of off-speed pitches and a heavy dose of deception. Hideo Nomo came to the U.S. topping off around 90 MPH. So did former Mariners closer Kazahiro Sasaki. Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma moved across the pond throwing a 90 MPH fastball, but was one of the best starters in MLB from 2012-2014.
As a starter, Tazawa's velocity was in that same range. Since moving to the bullpen, he's averaged about 93.5 MPH on his fastball. He does still complement that fastball with a starter's repertoire, throwing a forkball/splitter, a slider, and a curveball. Like many right-handed relievers, the fastball and slider tend to be his best weapons. Unlike many of the Japanese pitchers that we've seen come over, Tazawa uses a windup that is more typical of what we see out of western pitchers. There's no long pause at the top of the windup or extra way to try and deceive the hitter.
Some background on Koji Uehara
Uehara took a more typical route to MLB from Japan. He pitched nine years for the Yomiuri Giants in NPB before heading to the U.S., originally signing with the Orioles. Uehara had spent most of his career in NPB as a starting pitcher, but spent his final two years in Japan as a relief pitcher. Baltimore tried him as a starter in his first season, but moved him to the bullpen a year later. He seems to have found his niche in the bullpen, posting a seasonal ERA of 2.86 or lower and carrying a strikeout rate of 10.00 K/9 or higher in each of the past six seasons. Uehara bounced around a bit in his first few years in North America, but has spent the past three years as the Red Sox closer.
Uehara doesn't have an overpowering fastball, but he spots it as effectively as anyone in baseball. His fastball has sat at 87 so far this season. He's more reliant on his split-fingered fastball anyway, which has been the best splitter in the majors since his arrival in 2010 (33.8 Runs Above Average). Uehara's game is built on control and movement. He's walked just 1.13 batters per nine innings since reaching the majors, which is the lowest rate in the league over that time frame. He actually throws a lot of fly balls when opponents do make contact, and does give up the occasional long ball (1.05 HR/9).
How would the Nats use them?
If the Nats were to acquire either Tazawa or Uehara, the expectation is that Storen would remain the closer and whichever pitcher they added would slot into the setup role. Both of them seem capable of closing if it became a necessity, with Uehara being the one who has quite a bit more experience in the role.
What are their contract statuses?
Uehara is signed for $9 million this season and $9 million next season. He's due about $3 million the rest of the way. Uehara did turn 40 earlier this season, but hasn't shown any dropoff in performance. It's reasonable to expect that he'll still be an excellent reliever next season, but that's a steep financial price to carry into next season if the Nats would plan to keep both Uehara and Storen.
Tazawa's contract is something that would probably make the Red Sox more reluctant to part with him. The 29-year-old Tazawa has one more year of arbitration remaining and is making just $2.25 million this season in Boston. While I'm sure that a bit of a raise can be expected via arbitration, it's hard to imagine that figure going higher than $3.5-4 million. He's posted outstanding numbers the past four years as a reliever in Boston, but he hasn't accumulated a lot in the way of those traditional counting stats (wins and, for a reliever, saves), which may help to keep his price reasonable.
What will the Red Sox be looking for?
Well... We certainly know they're not going to be looking for outfielders. With Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo, and Hanley Ramirez all locked up for several years, they have that covered. The only infield spot where they might be in the market is at first base, as Mike Napoli is a free agent (they do have Allen Craig in the minors, but.... well.... he's not the same guy most of us remember). Pablo Sandoval is on an albatross deal. Xander Bogaerts is a fantastic young shortstop. Dustin Pedroia is under contract through 2021. They even have Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada in the pipeline.
Yeah.... Just like most of the other teams that we've brought up, the Red Sox will probably be looking for starting pitching. They'll want someone pretty close to the majors, since franchises like the Red Sox tend to reload rather than rebuild. Boston is the type of team that may place more of a premium on proximity to the majors than upside. I would think this could be a spot where A.J. Cole could be in play. I have a feeling that Ben Cherington might inquire about the availability of Tanner Roark, but I would think that Rizzo would be foolish to give him up for a year and a half of a reliever..... maybe Napoli gets involved somehow and the deal gets bigger? Who knows... I'm just spitballing that one.
This could be an interesting team to speculate about, though. I would think that the conventional thinking would be that Uehara (closing experience, closer on a World Series winner) is the more intriguing target. I would think that Tazawa (cheaper, younger, pretty much every bit as good) is really the guy that I'd prefer to see the Nats go after... and the one that the Red Sox would cling onto more tightly.
Will the Nats trade for Tazawa or Uehara?
I don't think so. I do think that either of them would be a terrific addition to the Nats. I'd probably say that outside of Kimbrel and Chapman these are the two best relievers we've looked at. At the very least, they're right there with K-Rod (boost for contract status) and Papelbon (boost if he accepts a deal and his option doesn't vest). I'd feel better about getting either of these two guys rather than the player that we just lost out on to the Mets (Clippard). I'd certainly like them more than Axford, and I'm convinced that the Diamondbacks aren't going to move Ziegler because... well... Dave Stewart.
At the very least, I think that the Nats should be talking to Ben Cherington about both of these players some time this week to see if he can snag them. It's possible that the Red Sox might include some money if they dealt Uehara, which would certainly make him more attractive (and boost Boston's return). He's a quality shutdown reliever who (while right-handed) absolutely dominates lefties and is effective against right-handed hitters as well. I'd rather have Tazawa, but I don't think that Boston is going to move him.
Anyway.... We gave you some Canadian rock when we discussed John Axford, so it's only fair to include some Japanese music when we discuss the Red Sox two Japanese relievers. Since we're all a little sad about former National Tyler Clippard going to the Mets, let's go with Su Metal's cover of Tamashii no Rufuran, which any of you who were fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion fans back in the day may recognize.....