Right-handed pitcher Junichi Tazawa was a rare bright spot last season in the bullpen for the Boston Red Sox, giving every sign of being the team’s closer of the future.

Although Tazawa has only one major league save to his credit, there are a number of reasons why Boston should explore using him as their ninth inning man in 2014 and beyond.

WEEI’s Alex Speier wrote about the lengths a Red Sox scout went to in a remote Japanese mountain village in order to scout a then-nearly unknown Tazawa in 2007. Those efforts led to signing him in 2008 to a modest three-year, $3.3 million contract.

Boston was unsure of what they were getting when they signed the talented but raw Tazawa. However, after years of steady development and a major surgery, it appears he’s nearly ready to step into a major role for the team.

Tazawa was initially groomed to be a starter. In 2009, his first professional season, he posted a combined minor league ERA of 2.55 in 109.1 innings, which was good enough to earn him a month with the Red Sox after the All-Star break.

During spring training in 2010, Tazawa experienced tightness in his elbow. Just before the regular season started, it was discovered he needed Tommy John surgery, which caused him to miss the entire year and put his promising career on hold.

Tazawa was turned into a reliever and pitched sparingly upon his return in 2011, but really blossomed last season.

In 25 appearances at Triple-A, he had a 2.55 ERA and struck out 56 batters in 42.1 innings. He was even better during his time with the Red Sox, posting a 1.43 ERA and striking out 45 (while walking just five) in 44 innings.

Tazawa throws a fastball, changeup, slider and curveball. Amazingly, his stuff has improved since his surgery. FanGraphs.com shows that he reached a personal high in average fastball velocity last season at 92.2 mph.

Tazawa confirmed that he believes his stuff is better since the surgery, telling NESN.com’s Didier Morais through an interpreter:

It’s definitely at least where it was before and I actually feel stronger. I’m making the ball go where I want to. The fastball might be even better than it was before.

The Red Sox were horrible down the stretch last season, going 7-22 After August 31, and allowing an average of 5.55 runs per games during that time. That also coincided with Tazawa pitching his best ball of the year.

In his final 14 games with Boston in 2012, he allowed a microscopic 0.71 ERA with just three hits and one walk in 12.2 innings, while striking out 16. During the same period, team closer Andrew Bailey had a 9.90 ERA and allowed 17 hits and six walks in 10 innings.

With Bailey and new closer Joel Hanrahan on the roster, there’s no apparent need for Tazawa to pitch at the end of games. That will likely change after next season.

Hanrahan will be 33 and a free agent after 2013. There’s a good chance Boston will pass on re-signing him to look for an option that is younger and cheaper.

Bailey has two years left until he reaches free agency. However, even though he is currently slated as the team’s setup man, there’s no guarantee he will even finish out 2013 in a Boston uniform.

Teams seeking a closer could see Bailey as an option worth pursuing in a trade. Even before the Hanrahan deal, ESPN.com’s Buster Olney reported in a tweet that the Red Sox were open to trading Bailey.

So, there’s a good chance that Boston’s closer position could be wide open in 2014. Count The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn among those who believe Tazawa could be that pitcher.

Tazawa is just 26 and won’t be eligible for free agency until 2017. If he keeps pitching the way he did last season, he figures to be in Boston for quite a while.

While Tazawa will have to wait and see if he eventually gets a shot to close, he’ll be counted on to be an integral part of Boston’s bullpen in 2013. If he can build on the giant step forward he took last season, the sky could be the limit for his future.

Statistics via BaseballReference


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