Japanese righty Hirokazu Sawamura has drawn early interest from multiple Major League teams, MLBTR has learned. It’s not yet certain that the 32-year-old reliever will make the jump to the big leagues, but the nine-year veteran has pitched in front of plenty of Major League scouts during his tenure in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. He’s an unrestricted free agent this winter, so he won’t be subject to the NPB-MLB posting system.
Sawamura spent the bulk of his NPB career pitching with the Yomiuri Giants but got out to a rough start in 2020 — nine runs on 14 hits and eight walks in 13 2/3 innings — prompting the Giants to trade him to the Chiba Lotte Marines. He’s righted the ship with his new team, allowing just two runs on six hits and seven walks with 19 punchouts in 14 2/3 frames.
Overall, Sawamura has logged 862 innings in his NPB career and worked to a 2.77 ERA with 8.1 K/9 against 2.7 BB/9. He began his career as a starter before becoming the Giants’ closer in 2015. He racked up 73 saves over the next two seasons as their primary ninth-inning option before missing the 2017 season due to a shoulder issue. (Bizarrely, it seems the Giants mistreated his initial discomfort with an acupuncture procedure that resulted in a nerve injury; the team’s president and GM both issued apologies to the right-hander.) He’s pitched mostly in a setup capacity since returning in 2018.
This year’s early struggles will surely be a red flag for some big league teams, but Sawamura’s post-trade rebound, his track record and a potentially MLB-caliber arsenal should all work in his favor if he does hope to sign in North America. The right-hander has a fastball that can reach 97 mph, a low-90s splitter that functions as his primary out pitch and a slider.
It’s hard to gauge precisely what type of market Sawamura would find, though demand for affordable bullpen help will be widespread, as is the case each winter. Some recent examples of pure relievers coming over from NPB include the Padres’ two-year, $3.8MM deal with Kazuhisa Makita, the Blue Jays’ one-year, $1MM deal with Rafael Dolis (plus a club option) and the Brewers $1MM deal with Jay Jackson. Dolis and Jackson, of course, were returning after years away from the big leagues.