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March 20, 2009 at 11:26 AM

2009 Prospect Previews: Junichi Tazawa and Luis Exposito


The 15th installment of the Prospect Previews series features the Red Sox international signing from this past off-season, and a catcher looking to continue his push through the organization.

Junichi Tazawa

Position: Starting Pitcher
2008 Team: Nippon Oil ENEOS (Japan Industrial League)
2009 Projected Team: Portland Sea Dogs

Strengths: This Japanese right-handed pitcher features exceptional secondary offerings and a fastball that sits 90-92 MPH, with some riding action in on right-handed hitters. His advanced slider is a pitch he can bury on batters as it sharply drops out of the strike zone late in its approach to home plate. Tazawa will mix in a 73-77 MPH curveball with some big bend to it, as well as an above-average forkball. His forkball acts more like a change-up and is a pitch that he uses to pull the string on hitters, keeping them off-balance and way out on their front foot. Working with an unconventional delivery, Tazawa has a whipping arm action that gives his offerings a bit of a different look. The ball appears a lot slower out of his hand when he throws his secondary pitches, and his fastball will jump on hitters given the number of off-speed pitches he mixes in. Its tough to gauge his delivery, and his pitches have a lot of deception to them. Capable of moving the ball inside and outside, Tazawa has excellent command of his arsenal at this point in time. In a controversial move, Tazawa asked the professional teams in Japan not to draft him in order for him to pursue his career in the United States. The Red Sox signed him despite other teams outbidding them, in part because of Tazawa’s dream to pitch with his idol, Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Development Needs: Tazawa’s fastball is just average right now and the least advanced of his offerings. When he’s able to keep his hand on top of the pitch, it has some run on it, but when he gets under the pitch and tries to overthrow it, it flattens out and comes in on a straight trajectory. Despite some reports of velocity in the high 90’s, he generally operates in the low 90’s with his fastball and tops out around 94. Improvement on his fastball is a target area for Tazawa, and how well this pitch improves will be a good indicator of where he will project as a major leaguer. At 22 years old, he’s most likely reached his peak in fastball velocity. Coming from the Japan Industrial League, he’s very untested against advanced competition and has yet to face the type of batters he will in the United States. Given the culture change and the advancement in competition, a period of adjustment can be expected of Tazawa, and it remains to be seen how long it will take for him to transition into baseball at the highest level. However, Tazawa has been strong this spring in the major league camp and has drawn a lot of praise from Sox officials for his stuff and potential. His delivery is on the unconventional side, but the Red Sox haven’t made any indications that they will try to change things as of now.

2009 Outlook: Tazawa is still in the major league camp with the Red Sox and is having a strong start to his transition to baseball in the United States. Look for him to begin the season with the Portland Sea Dogs in their starting rotation. Expect Tazawa to continue his mastery of changing speeds and mixing in his off-speed pitches frequently. Batters should be off-balance against him, especially in the first go around in the Eastern League. One of the main areas of development to watch for is how well his fastball comes around. If Tazawa can consistently turn the pitch over and improve his release point, he should have excellent results at this level given the polish on his secondary pitches. Tazawa should demonstrate excellent command and make batters earn their way on base. Another area of development to keep an eye on is how quickly he adjusts to the advanced competition he faces in AA. Tazawa is an intriguing prospect to follow given all the unknowns that surround him. 2009 will be a good indication of how far away he is from appearing in a Boston uniform.

Luis Exposito

Position: Catcher
2008 Teams: Greenville Drive and Lancaster Jethawks
2009 Projected Team: Salem Red Sox

Strengths: Exposito has excellent present power produced by a fluid swing that is quick to the point of contact, and he generates good loft on the follow through. He demonstrated nice power numbers in the 2008 season and made some strong developmental strides becoming the Red Sox top catching prospect in the process. Still improving as a hitter in his pitch recognition and approach at the plate, he has some more room to add power as he hones in on picking out the pitches he can drive. Given his propensity to square up the ball consistently, he makes a high rate of solid contact and is able to get the bat on the ball well, keeping his strikeouts down. Standing 6’3’’ and 215 pounds, Exposito has a solid frame and an excellent base for a catcher. Behind the plate, he possesses all of the tools to be an above-average defender at the major league level. Exposito moves well for a player his size and is adept at blocking balls in the dirt. His strong arm is augmented by fluid throwing mechanics. A student of catching, his game calling skills and instincts behind the plate are advanced for a player of his experience level, and pitchers are very comfortable throwing to him. With his outgoing personality, Exposito is very popular with his teammates and the type of player that brings a team together.

Development Needs: While he is a hitter who makes excellent contact, Exposito is not overly disciplined in the batter’s box. Improvement on his patience at the plate and selection of pitches to attack are strong developmental needs for him. Exposito will face his biggest challenge when he reaches more advanced levels within organization to prevent pitchers from exploiting his aggressiveness. As a player who has natural lift in his swing, Exposito will have to keep a balance between trying to jerk the ball and driving through the ball to minimize slumps at the plate. He does not walk very much, and some improvement in this area should make him a tougher out while limiting the times he gets himself out. Exposito’s caught stealing percentage was below average in 2008, mainly because he needs to make improvement on his throwing accuracy. He can rush his throws or get under them from time to time, but this should improve as his learns to slow things down more and trust his technique. With one strong season of professional baseball under his belt, it remains to be seen if Exposito can continue to trend upwards with his development, but all signs point towards this prospect taking another step forward in 2009.

2009 Outlook: Exposito should begin the season with the Salem Red Sox. He will be looking for a promotion to Portland this season, and with a strong start to the season, the Red Sox may be inclined to challenge him in AA around Memorial Day. Look for Exposito to continue his knack for getting the solid part of the bat on the ball at this level and to continue to produce solid power numbers for a catcher. One of the main areas of development to watch for is how much his patience and discipline at the plate improve. It is a good bet that the organization will be closely watching this area of his game, and a promotion to the next level will depend on him showing improvement in his plate discipline. Watch for an increase in deep counts and some added walks as a by-product. Another area to watch for is an improvement in his throwing numbers. Exposito has an outstanding arm, and sharpening of his accuracy should allow him to throw out as many runners as one would expect of someone with his arm strength. 2009 will be a key season of development for Exposito. Coming off a season in which he moved up the Red Sox depth chart at the catching position, he will look to continue his assent up the ranks and to solidify himself as a candidate to be the organization’s long-term solution behind the plate.

 
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