Free agent target Hirokazu Sawamura has shades of a former Red Sox All-Star from Japan

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John Tomase
·2 min read
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Tomase: Shades of former Sox All-Star in potential bullpen signing? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Fourteen years ago, the Red Sox made a signing out of Japan that barely caused a ripple when they inked reliever Hideki Okajima to a two-year deal.

Signed to far less fanfare than celebrated countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka, Okajima nevertheless made a sizable impact on the 2007 World Series champions, reaching the All-Star Game via the fan vote and posting a 2.22 ERA in 66 games.

The 31-year-old finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting and went on to a solid five-year career in Boston, where he delivered a 2.11 ERA in 17 postseason appearances.

Nearly 15 years later, the Red Sox appear poised to sign another under-the-radar veteran reliever out of Japan, according to multiple reports overseas, as well as one from MassLive. They can only hope that Hirokazu Sawamura delivers anywhere near the production of Okajima.

There are similarities beyond their birthplace. Pitching primarily in relief during his 10 years in Japan, the 32-year-old Sawamura is 52-56 with a 2.82 ERA and 75 saves. He has struck out 8.2 batters per nine innings, and he whiffed 29 in 21 innings after being traded from Yomiuri to Chiba Lotte.

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At 6-foot, 212-pounds, Sawamura features a fastball that hit 99 mph last year, as well as an outstanding split-fingered fastball that Baseball America says registers in the low-90s. Because he's a free agent, he needn't be posted like other Japanese stars and can sign with anyone he likes.

If he's brought into the fold, he'll join a revamped bullpen competition that includes recently acquired right-hander Adam Ottavino, right-handed swingman Matt Andriese, Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock and a series of lower-tier signings.

One area to watch is closer. While Okajima served almost exclusively as a setup man during his Red Sox career, Sawamura has closing experience. He saved 36 games with Yomiuri in 2015 and 37 in 2016 before nerve problems in his shoulder that may have traced to a failed acupuncture treatment limited him to nine appearances in 2017.

He muddled along until being reinvigorated by the trade to Chiba Lotte, where he posted a 1.71 ERA in 22 games.

With former closer Brandon Workman dealt away at last year's trade deadline, the Red Sox will enter spring training with a competition at closer. Veteran Matt Barnes is one possibility to assume the role, as well as Ottavino.

Perhaps Sawamura will join the competition as a dark horse candidate, making an impact like his countryman Okajima did nearly 15 years ago.