On Tuesday, the Boston Red Sox announced that they have come to terms to an agreement with Japanese right-handed submariner, Shunsuke Watanabe. The exact figures of the deal have been unannounced, but it will be a minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training.
Watanabe, 37, has spent his entire professional career in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league with the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Over 13 seasons, the right-hander holds an 87-82 record with a career ERA of 3.65.
In 2013, Watanabe finished with an 0-4 record and a 4.62 ERA in only six starts. On November 3rd of this year, the Marines released their long-tenured pitcher from his contract.
Watanabe is a two-time NBP All-Star and has pitched for Japan in 2006 and 2009 in the World Baseball Classic, winning the gold on both occasions.
Ironically enough, Watanabe has previously faced one Red Sox’ hitter by the name of David Ortiz. During the 2004 Japan All-Star Series, the sidearm pitcher faced Ortiz, (representing the United States Major League Baseball squad), and subsequently allowed Ortizto hit a 525 foot home run at the Tokyo Dome.
To assert that the former Chiba Lotte Marine is unique is an understatement. Watanabe is renowned for remarkably low release point when releasing the baseball. Throwing the ball approximately two inches from the ground is the lowermost out of any professional pitcher in the world.
In NPB, Watanabe has an abysmal career 4.8 K/9 rate and 2.2 BB/9, and has exhibited signs of severe regression in previous seasons. Since 2008, he has had an ERA under 4.00 on one occasion.
On the surface, there isn’t much to be thrilled about. Watanabe is simply an older pitcher whose best days are behind him. Although impressively consistent on a year-to-year basis in Japan, it’s unfair to expect he will thrive in an entirely new atmosphere at 37-years old.
Without a string of recent success, it’s difficult to discover why Watanabe urged a move to the MLB right now. Also due to his submarine style, he essentially has little choice but to become a relief pitcher, a role he’s never played. This could potentially be an adjustment that he struggles in or thrives. But there is a fear of the unknown that is present.
While he is not one of the premier Japanese players to be posted over the past several seasons, Watanabe may validate himself as an asset and become a valuable weapon in the Red Sox’ arsenal at some point in 2014.
When analyzing what he brings to the table, all points indicate there is some gas left in the veteran’s tank. Generally, Watanabe’s unique style permits him to stay in games later than most pitchers because his unorthodox approach is less exhausting.
He keep his pitches in the bottom corners of the strike zone, inducing groundball outs. That’s how Watanabe gets to batters, seeing that his K/9 is incredibly subpar. Speed is not a strong suit either, as he tosses about an 80MPH fastball.
Instead, Watanabe is methodical and fools batters. With a 60MPH curveball and strongest weapon, his sinker, he won’t be throwing heat that Koji Uehara does by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, he can mix up his pitches to fools batters and eat some innings in middle relief.
With all of that being said, general manager Ben Cherington does deserve a bit of recognition for this acquisition. There is no risk, but a high potential reward. Witnessing how Watanabe attacks hitters in Spring Training will ultimately determine his role in Boston, and he could possibly develop into a significant component in the pen.
And what if he’s a disastrous failure? Well, he’s released from his contract and the Red Sox go on their merry way. Even if he spends the majority of the season in Pawtucket, if anything else, he is treasured depth in the organization.
Cherington has done an outstanding job of accumulating a robust bullpen in 2014. Previously inking Edward Mujica to a two-year pact and acquiring Burke Badenhop from the Brewers, Ben has made the finishing touches to his bullpen. Adding this low risk Japanese swinger could potentially be one of Cherington’s more underrated coups this winter.
With the core relievers in Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, and Andrew Miller returning, as well as Drake Britton, Brandon Workman, and Allen Webster waiting in the wings, Boston possesses some of the finest pitching depth in the majors.
To make room for this acquisition, the Red Sox released right-hander Chris Carpenter from his contract. The 27-year old had a 5.17 ERA in 15 and 2/3 innings this season in Boston. Carpenter was compensation from the Chicago Cubs when Theo Epstein left in in 2011.