The Red Sox on Tuesday announced the signing of right-handed reliever Hirokazu Sawamura to a two-year contract with a dual club/player option for the 2023 season. Lefty Jeffrey Springs was designated for assignment to open a spot on the 40-man roster. Sawamura, a veteran of 10 seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, is represented by JBA Sports.
Reports over the past week have indicated that Sawamura and the Sox were discussing an affordable two-year pact, which The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently pegged at $3MM in guaranteed money. MassLive.com’s Chris Cotillo tweets that Sawamura will earn a $1.2MM base salary in both years of the contract, though his 2022 base salary can reach $1.7MM based on his performance in the contract’s first year. The Red Sox also hold a club option valued at $3-4MM depending on performance escalators and milestones. Should they decline their half, Sawamura would have a player option valued between $600K and $2.2MM. The contract also contains $250K of annual incentives. All in all, Rosenthal suggested the contract can top out at $7.65MM over three years.
Sawamura, 33 in April, pitched nine and a half seasons with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan before being traded to the Chiba Lotte Marines early in 2020. He’d gotten out to a rough start with his longtime club, erving up nine runs in his first 13 1/3 frames, but Sawamura turned things around with the Marines. In 21 innings down the stretch, he pitched to a pristine 1.71 ERA while striking out 29 of the 82 batters he faced (35.3 percent). Sawamura walked 10 in that time (12.1 percent) — far more than has been characteristic throughout his NPB career, but the promising finish likely assuaged some concerns from MLB clubs about a potential decline.
Overall, Sawamura has logged 868 1/3 innings in his NPB career and worked to a 2.77 ERA with a 22.1 percent strikeout rate and a 7.3 percent walk rate. He began his career as a starter before becoming the Giants’ closer in 2015 — a role he’d hold for two years.
Sawamura racked up 73 saves as the Giants’ primary ninth-inning option from 2015-16 before missing the 2017 season due to a shoulder issue. That missed season came after a bizarre scene in which a lesser shoulder issue was mistreated, leading to broader nerve troubles that sidelined him for months. The team’s president, GM and medical staff all reportedly apologized to Sawamura after the incident. Since his return in 2018, he’s worked as a setup man. He’s pitched mostly in a setup capacity since returning in 2018.
Sawamura has been healthy since that regrettable sequence and gives the Red Sox an intriguing hurler who could eventually emerge as a late-inning option. The right-hander has a fastball that can reach 97 mph, a low-90s splitter that functions as his primary out pitch, and a lesser-used slider to round out a three-pitch arsenal.
If that $3MM is indeed the final guarantee, that will represent a $1.5MM luxury-tax hit for the Red Sox, regardless of how those dollars are paid out. Such a commitment narrowly fits within a rapidly shrinking window between Boston’s overall luxury ledger and the $210MM tax threshold.
Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez now has them with a bit less than $2MM of breathing room, which makes additional dealings unlikely unless the Sox suddenly abandon their preference to stay south of the barrier, put together another trade to reduce their financial obligations or cut one of their arbitration-eligible players during Spring Training. (Unless specifically bargained otherwise, arbitration deals are only partially guaranteed up until Opening Day.)
Turning to the 28-year-old Springs, he’ll now be available to other clubs either via outright waivers, a trade or a simple release. The Red Sox have a week to make a decision as to which route they’ll choose. The 2020 season was Springs’ first with the Red Sox, and it proved to be a struggle. In 20 1/3 frames, the former Rangers southpaw was tagged for a 7.08 ERA. He struck out 28 percent of his opponents against just a seven percent walk rate, but five of the 99 opponents Springs faced took him deep. He has a 5.42 ERA and 4.66 FIP in 84 2/3 innings at the Major League level between the Texas and Boston organizations.