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Tazawa: A step toward something bigger?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 4, 2008 06:07 PM

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In the final analysis, Junichi Tazawa is an acquisition for the future, a 22-year-old prospect who will likely start at Double A. Still, his presence here could give the Red Sox flexibility in the short term as well as the long.

Confused? Look at it this way: If and when the Red Sox sign a prominent free agent this offseason -- Mark Teixeira, anyone? -- that maneuver would require the Sox to forfeit a first-round selection in next year’s amateur draft. And so here comes Tazawa, a talented young man whom Sox officials privately have compared to a mid- or high-first-round selection.

See what may be happening here?

In Tazawa, the Red Sox effectively may be replacing the first-round pick they could lose.

"He’s a very, very promising prospect that we’re eager to add to the organization," general manager Theo Epstein said as the Sox formally announced the signing of Tazawa to a three-year contract worth precisely $3.3 million that includes a $1.8 million signing bonus and an average annual salary of $500,000. "We believe [Tazawa] will have an impact at the big league level in the near future."

Like, say, next week.

In Las Vegas.

Never forget something about Epstein and his entire baseball operations staff: They absolutely love their draft picks, and with good reason. In Epstein’s six years as general manager, the Sox already have drafted and developed Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, and Jonathan Papelbon, among others. With the possible exception of David Murphy, Epstein really hasn’t traded away a high draft choice of his own. Boston’s farm system is at the foundation of everything the Red Sox might accomplish this offseason, from trades to free agent signings to even contract extensions for the likes of Dustin Pedroia.

As long as the Red Sox keep adding young players, Epstein can pretty much make any move he wants because he has the financial flexibility to spend however he chooses.

The problem with free agency, as we all know, isn’t solely the financial risk involved in signing a player to a multi-year, multi-million contract. It’s the forfeiture of draft picks, too. For all that was made of the $51.11 million that the Red Sox spent for solely the negotiating rights to Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006 -- that money did not count against the Sox in luxury tax calculations -- the team further benefited from Matsuzaka’s status as an international player.

Know what that means?

It means the Sox didn’t have to give up a compensatory draft selection, either.

They got Matsuzaka and kept a pick, which made the international market all the more appealing.

Now comes Tazawa, a talented 22-year-old righthander whose repertoire includes a fastball in the low 90s and split-fingered pitch to go along with a slider and curveball. The Red Sox intend to employ Tazawa as a starter during the early part of his career, though Epstein left open the possibility that Tazawa could end up in the bullpen. Regardless, the Red Sox have added another young arm to their stable, which could be especially important if and when the Sox lose a first-round pick through free agency.

In the major leagues, producing talent is all about inventory, which is why the Baltimore Orioles traded Erik Bedard for a cast of prospects last year. A good organization runs its player development systems like a bouncer working the door at any popular watering hole: one out, one in. The more you examine it, this is precisely what the Red Sox seem to be doing with Tazawa, whom Epstein yesterday compared to a first-round college player.

Let’s take this a little further. Three years ago, when the Red Sox traded for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, pitching was the team’s obvious focus. At the time, the Sox debated whether to trade for Beckett or sign free agent A.J. Burnett, the latter of whom was preferred by owner John Henry. Because Beckett also would require a contract extension, Henry’s logic was that the Sox effectively could get Burnett for less because they would have to surrender only money.

As it turned out, largely due to the fact that Bill Lajoie and Craig Shipley deemed Beckett a superior talent, the Sox made the trade and gave up a group of players including the otherworldly Hanley Ramirez, who alone was no small sacrifice. Beckett subsequently was signed to a three-year, $30-million extension through next season (with a club option for 2010) while Burnett is again a free agent.

In retrospect, what we failed to recognize at the time was that signing Burnett also would have required the Sox to give up a first-round draft pick, either Jason Place or Daniel Bard. (The Sox had an additional first-round pick that year because they inherited the Yankees’ selection when Johnny Damon signed with New York. Place and Bard were chosen consecutively, in that order.) Had the Sox signed Burnett, Ramirez would still be with the Boston organization today, but one of those other players would not.

Entering next week’s annual winter meetings in Las Vegas, the Red Sox’ needs appear obvious. In the short term, the Sox need a catcher. In the long, they need an impact hitter for middle of their lineup. For the latter, all signs continue to point to Teixeira, who will likely require a financial investment in the range of $20 million annually for as many as 6-8 years. The additional cost would be a first-round selection in a baseball world where draft picks have taken on great importance, perhaps even a value that extends beyond dollars and sense.

Now that Junichi Tazawa is here, the smart thing to do would be to consider him as the Sox’ first-round selection in 2009.

Which means that as the Sox pack their bags for Vegas, they have a first-round pick to burn.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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