The Rays announced that they have signed right-hander Naoyuki Uwasawa to a minor league contract with an invite to major league camp. “I’m excited to join the Rays organization and grateful for the opportunity to begin a career in Major League Baseball,” he said in a club press release. “I decided to play for the Rays because the success and the rich history of pitching development really intrigued me.”
Uwasawa, 29, will be coming over from the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. Like Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Shota Imanaga, he was posted by his NPB club, but he comes with decidedly less hype than those two. While Yamamoto secured himself a $325MM contract and Shota Imanaga landed a $53MM guarantee, Uwasawa is settling for a minor league pact.
That may be a surprise if one were to merely look at Uwasawa’s results in terms of run prevention. He has a 3.19 earned run average over his nine NPB seasons, having tossed over 1,000 innings. He just posted a 2.96 ERA over 170 innings in 2023.
But digging a little deeper shows why there wasn’t as much excitement from MLB clubs. MLBTR contributor Dai Takegami Podziewski has frequently highlighted Uwasawa in his NPB Players to Watch series, noting that his fastball was averaging just 90.8 miles per hour last year.
That’s perhaps a factor in his low strikeout totals in Japan. His NPB career has resulted in a strikeout rate of just 19.7% while that was down to 17.8% in 2023. For reference, Yamamoto punched out 26.6% of hitters last year while Imanaga was at 29.2%. Since MLB hitters are considered superior to NPB hitters, it’s understable that clubs would be suspicious of how Uwasawa would make the jump to North America.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Uwasawa is doomed to failure, as some pitchers are crafty enough to succeed without a power arsenal, with Kyle Hendricks and Brent Suter just a couple of examples. But throwing harder generally gives a pitcher more room for error than one with a bit less power.
For the Rays, there’s no risk in giving him a minor league deal to see how his stuff plays against hitters in the affiliated ranks. Their rotation has taken a number of hits in the past year, as each of Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen required a serious elbow surgery that will force them to miss part or perhaps all of the 2024 season. The club’s financial situation also led them to trade Tyler Glasnow to the Dodgers.
They are currently left with a rotation featuring Zach Eflin, Aaron Civale, Zack Littell, Ryan Pepiot, Taj Bradley and Shane Baz. Eflin and Civale have checkered health histories while Littell only recently converted from the bullpen to a starting gig. Pepiot and Bradley are lacking in big league experience while Baz is coming off a season completely lost to Tommy John surgery recovery.
If Uwasawa is in good form in the spring and in the early parts of the minor league season, there should be plenty of opportunity for him to find some big league innings, whether that’s in the rotation, behind an opener or perhaps as a multi-inning guy out of the bullpen.