Every off-season in recent years there has been an extraordinary amount of hype surrounding foreign players, and this year was no different. Junichi Tazawa and Dayan Viciedo was on everyone’s mind this winter, but have seemed to become nonexistent since. Surprise, surprise, that must mean one of two things. The first being they haven’t produced, the second is that those who were talking about them have ceased because they realize that there is nothing to hype, I mean talk, about anymore. Nevertheless, I am here to report the reality of the situation.
Junichi Tazawa – SP – Boston Red Sox – 5-11 – 180 lbs – DOB 6/6/1986 – Throws Right
Japan has produced valuable major leaguers recently, but none have truly lived up to their hype, save Ichiro. Hideki Matsui’s Japanese homers are American doubles, Hiroki Kuroda is a great second or third starting pitcher, and Kaz Matsui is, well, a serviceable major league player (minus the anal fissures). Daisuke Matsuzaka has been a bit less than advertised, but then again he was deemed God’s gift to baseball. Look at this quick list of players and tell me who stands out on credentials not name recognition (all players are in the majors or minors):
Two standouts – Saito and Okajima. Okajima is a dominate 8th inning pitcher and Saito was a top closer when he wasn’t hurt. Nevertheless, some have not lived near their hype (Fukudome), others haven’t had the time (Kawakami, Uehara) and others are what they are (Iwamura, Kobayashi, Igawa, Ohka).
So, why digress this much? Well, all of these players came to America and the MLB through the traditional path – that is they played professionally in Japan and then came to America (and to prove a point that not all foreign Japanese players come to America and are successful). Junichi actually came over before playing at the highest level of professional ball in Japan. After his dominating 2008 season (113 IP, 13 W, 114 k, 15 BB) he asked all 12 major teams that participate in the amateur draft in Japan not to draft him so he could seek a contract with a MLB team. The Japanese teams honored his request, and this past winter Mr. Tazawa signed a 3-year, $3.3 million contract ($1.8 million was a signing bonus). Junichi was offered better deals but wanted a chance to play for his childhood idol/hero – Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Well, his dream will have to wait until he proves himself in AA, and rises the ranks like all other prospects. But does he have a chance? He has a average fastball that ranges from 89-92 mph with good movement. If he overthrows it, it flattens out. He will have to learn to use what he has and not overthrow the pitch or he will become extremely homer prone; which he is not – for the record in 71 2/3 innings at AA this year his HR/9 is .88, or just 7 home runs! His slider is what has drawn so much attention. This offering is in the upper 70s, breaks hard and is his out pitch. He also throws the stereotypical Japanese pitch, the forkball. It isn’t much, but it’s there. Lately, he has started to develop a curveball, but it’s really more a work-in-progress than anything else; though it does have a nice arch and break – like a Barry Zito curve. Random tidbit: some have compared him to Hiroki Kuroda.
Some scouts have been scared off by his arm whipping pitching motion, and anytime arm whip and pitcher are associated or mentioned in the same sentence, even average baseball fans wince. His lower body is ahead of his arm, and his arm comes around with a ton of force and recoil. This is the whip action that scouts are fearing. Nevertheless, I couldn’t find any negative medical reports.
What has this produced? Actually, surprisingly, he has pitched better than I would have expected:
71 2/3 IP, 7 W, 4 L, 21 BB (2.64 BB/9), 66 K (8.29 K/9), 3.14 ERA (3.63 FIP), 1.16 WHIP .234 ave (.288 BABIP)
Those are relatively impressive numbers in AA. Not quite the numbers that he posted in lower level baseball in Japan, but still enough to warrant a promotion to AAA. There hasn’t been a lot of luck in those numbers as demonstrated by the BABIP, and his FIP is only half a run higher than his ERA. Since he is in Boston’s farm and they are loaded with pitching, AAA is probably the highest he’ll go this year, unless the Red Sox are decimated by pitching injuries. So hold tight, but in minor league keeper leagues and long term dynasty leagues he should have been on your radar, and now he should be on your team! Say hello to the Junichi Tazawa in 2010!
There hasn’t been as many Cuban players that have played in the majors due to political reason (Fidel Castro v. America), but that hasn’t stopped stars/ Hall of Fame players such as Tony Oliva, Tony Perez, and Luis Tiant from succeeding in the MLB. Other Cubans in the majors include: half brothers Livan and Orlando “el Duque” Hernandez, Alexei Ramirez, Jose Contreras, Yunel Escobar, and Kendry Morales (Rafael Palmeiro is Cuban but isn’t playing anymore). These secondary names are not Hall of Famers, but have put up numbers that have allowed them to play at a high level (even if it was only for a short time *cough* Alexei *cough*). However, Viciedo is deemed the greatest Cuban player of all time! That is saying a lot as there are several players that never played in the MLB due to political reasons that were stellar in their own rights (Cuban baseball has an extremely rich history rivaling American baseball history). Talk about hyperbole and media hype! If this is the case, history will prove itself, but let the numbers play out before that title is given to a 20-year-old.
Viciedo, Cuban “masher” was signed this off season by the Cuban hoarding White Sox for a tidy sum of $10 million over 4 years ($4 million was a signing bonus). With the Cuban Missile (Alexei Ramirez) and the aging Jose Contreras already on their team, the common belief is that this should help assimilate Viciedo into American culture… Well that would only work if he was in the majors. Instead, he is sitting in AA and hitting like he deserves to be there:
.276/.296/.362 (ave/obp/slg) 31/4/37/5 (R/HR/RBI/SB) in 243 AB (62 games)
3.2 BB%, 19.8 K%, .086 ISO, .330 BABIP
Those are not numbers that would lead someone to believe that he played on the Cuban national team at age 16 when he hit 14 homers and for a .337 average (which is true). Not only is his hitting, well, to be nice, awful, it’s overshadowed by his terrible fielding (15 errors in 52 games)! That’s one every 4[ish] games. Good thing that the White Sox have the DH and can plug his bat in there. Seriously though, that might not happen if he cannot start hitting. Most 20 year old players are in high A ball, and nearing AA. I am not sure if the hype is warranted, or the much less the $10 million price tag (average minor league salaries). At least he doesn’t strikeout like Mark Reynolds, but he walks less than Delmon Young and hits for power like a pitcher… and he can’t even blame luck!
Enough bashing, and on to an honest numerical evaluation. Right now, with the numbers I have (its a small sample size), it might be best to return to Dayan Viciedo latter in the year when he has more at-bats. However, I am evaluating him right now, and I would classify him as a hype star that is losing its shine. Dayan’s ISO is disturbing and his walk rate leaves a ton to be desired. Hopefully its just a little culture shock and he will have a great second half, but only time will tell. Don’t look to see him in the near future. A spring training invite is necessary because he is on the 40 man roster. So, maybe the 2010 spring training hype will become all encompassing again, but might actually start to produce.
*All stats are as of 6/14/2009