Japanese import drawing attention

While unsubstantiated rumors swirled around free-agent shortstops Monday – Edgar Renteria has not reached terms with San Francisco, his agent, Jeffrey Lane wrote in an email Monday night, while Rafael Furcal has neither (a) received a four-year $48 million offer from Oakland or (b) been asked to play second base by the New York Mets – the bidding for a Japanese free-agent pitcher is coming to a head.

And the Boston Red Sox, according to numerous reports coming out of Japan, appear to be the preferred choice of Junichi Tazawa, a 22-year-old right-hander from an industrial semipro league.

If Boston does indeed sign Tazawa, no one should confuse this with the second coming of Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was Japan’s best pitcher when the Red Sox won the rights to him with the highest bid in Japan’s posting process.

Matsuzaka has become a staple of the Boston rotation, winning a team-high 18 games this past season. Tazawa is a work in progress who probably will begin in the minor leagues.

“His fastball is a tad above average,” one veteran Pacific Rim scout said Monday. “His breaking balls are fine. The best thing he’s got going for him is that he has a real samurai warrior makeup, kind of like a young [Hiroki] Kuroda”

Kuroda, 33, was 9-10 with a 3.73 ERA in 31 starts this past season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, his first, throwing a one-hitter and allowing just two earned runs in 12 1/3 innings in his two postseason starts.

A deal with the Red Sox had been rumored for weeks, but in the past month, several other teams jumped into the bidding, including the Texas Rangers, a relative newcomer on the Asian scene. The Kyodo News quoted Hideaki Okubo, manager of Nippon Oil, the team for which Tazawa pitches, as saying that the Rangers made the biggest offer.

Published reports in Japan have pegged the Rangers’ offer as a four-year, $7 million deal. There have been conflicting reports on the Red Sox’s offer, one saying Boston had offered $6 million, the other $3 million. Craig Shipley, Boston’s vice president of international scouting, said, “We do not comment on amateur free agents.”

Other teams that are reported to have made offers are the Atlanta Braves and Seattle Mariners. Detroit Tigers vice president of amateur scouting, David Chadd, also recently went to watch Tazawa pitch, but the Tigers are not believed to have made an offer. All the teams that have made a bid offered a major league deal, although the Red Sox reportedly plan to begin Tazawa in the minor leagues, on the Double-A level.

“[Scouts] Craig Shipley and Jon Deeble did a great job with Tazawa,” the Pacific Rim scout said. “They’ve been working on this for a long time, and developed a very good relationship [with the player].”

Tazawa was not drafted by any of Japan’s 12 professional teams after high school.

This past season, he went 10-1 with a 1.02 ERA and led Nippon Oil to its first industrial league title, winning four games in the tournament and was named MVP. In his last corporate tournament, which recently ended, Tazawa did not allow an earned run in 20 2/3 innings, although he gave up the deciding hit in a semifinal loss.

Last month, Japanese professional teams acceded to Tazawa’s request that he not be picked in their most recent draft, paving his way to sign with a major league team. His courtship by MLB teams has caused a strain in relations with Japanese professional baseball, which has complained that signing amateur and industrial league players had been considered off-limits in the past by MLB teams.

“This was more than just a gentleman’s agreement, but rather an implicit understanding that the major leagues would do no such thing,” Nippon Professional Baseball, in a news release quoted by The New York Times, wrote of signing Japanese baseball amateurs. “That a handful of clubs from the majors is trying to break this gentlemen’s agreement is truly regrettable.”

There are new rules being put in place in Japan that would place a ban on amateur players who forgo the draft from returning to Japan to play for three years; industrial league or university players would face a two-year ban.

The shortstop merry-go-round, meanwhile, took some wild spins Monday, with Renteria’s agent, Lane, sending an email Monday night denying a report that Renteria had signed a two-year, $18 million contract with the Giants.

“The reports of a deal are not correct,” Lane wrote. “We are talking to several teams, including the Giants.”

Meanwhile, agent Scott Boras denied a report that the Red Sox had made a one-year offer to catcher Jason Varitek, saying negotiations were still in their preliminary stages. There have been indications that Boston would offer Varitek a two-year deal in the same $10 million neighborhood Varitek was paid the past four seasons.

Gordon Edes is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Gordon a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Nov 25, 2008