Has Junichi Tazawa Earned Spot in Cubs Bullpen?

When the Cubs signed veteran reliever Junichi Tazawa to a minor-league deal as part of a wave of flyers taken on bullpen arms over age 30, the move was largely ignored. Maybe some of that was because Tazawa was coming off of a disastrous season split between Miami, Anaheim, and Triple-A in which he posted an ERA north of 7.00 and gave up seven homers in just 28 innings.

Then a funny thing happened: The Japanese hurler started pitching well this spring. It’s only been 5.2 innings, but he hasn’t allowed a run and has given up only three hits while striking out nine and walking none. What is it Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have always said about wanting proven strike-throwers for the bullpen?

Any time half of your outs come via the strikeout, people are going to take notice. Meanwhile, Tazawa’s bullpen competitors have largely struggled in their respective appearances. Brian Duensing, George Kontos, and Brandon Kintzler have not been effective, with the former sporting a spring ERA of 10.29 after another poor outing Thursday. And with locks Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop, and Brad Brach battling injuries or illness, the Cubs have no shortage of need in the relief corps.

In Tazawa’s most recent appearance against the Dodgers, he entered with two men on and one out and froze a pair of batters on two-seam fastballs to escape the jam. Now it’s a question carrying this spring success into the games that count and maybe regaining some of his old form.

From 2012-14 he became one of the Red Sox’ most reliable relievers by showcasing a devastating split-finger. But two big things have changed since that high water mark in Beantown. Most notable is that he has steadily reduced the use of his splitter, from 31 percent of his offerings in 2012 to just 16.8 percent in 2018. Over that same time, his average fastball velocity has dipped from 93.7 to 91.5 mph.

This is where the whole lack of pitch data for the Cactus League is a real pain in the butt. We don’t know if the 32-year-old is seeing an uptick in velocity or is using his splitter more often. Or both. The Cubs do have access to that pitch information, though, and if they have seen that his fastball has ticked back up or that he’s displaying other promising numbers, they should definitely give Tazawa a spot in the ‘pen.

Given everything else going wrong with that unit at this point, they can’t afford to turn their backs on any good relief performance they get, no matter who it’s coming from.

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