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Rays sign RHP Naoyuki Uwasawa

Tampa Bay secures their much needed sixth starter, convincing NPB strong performer Uwasawa to join on a minor league deal.

Japan All-Star Series: Japan v. MLB All-Stars

The Tampa Bay Rays have signed international free agent RHP Naoyuki Uwasawa to a minor league contract with an invite to Major League camp.

Uwasawa, who will turn 30 years old prior to Spring Training, held a 2.96 ERA last season for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, the team with which he’s spent his entire professional career (3.19 ERA, 173 G). He has thrown at least 160 innings in each season dating back to 2018, with the exception of the COVID shortened 2020 (102 IP). Last year only 45 pitchers threw at least 160 innings at the major league level.

After working with Driveline in the offseason, Uwasawa threw two complete game shutouts in 2023 (once in May and once in September), a feat he had not accomplished since 2018, and crossed the 1,000 innings pitched milestone on May 23rd.

Although there were at least five teams interested in Uwasawa’s services, including a rumored major league deals from the Angels, the Japanese pitcher ultimately decided to bet on his own stuff and the opportunity to work with the Rays pitching lab.

Critically, Uwasawa joins the Rays by signing a minor league deal with an invitation to big league camp. Short of injuries, this allows the Rays to keep intact their current rotation of Zach Eflin, Zack Littell, Aaron Civale, Ryan Pepiot, and Taj Bradley to start the season, while providing much needed depth should any injuries occur in the early running (and lord knows injuries are coming for starters every season).

The deal will pay up to $3.5 million if/when he is added to the major league roster, per Japanese media, who report there were multiple major league deals to be had elsewhere. And although the Rays 40-man roster is currently full, slots will open at the start of Spring Training once Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen, and Wander Franco are moved to their requisite inactive lists.

What they saw in Uwasawa

Signing Uwasawa was a potential move we have been tracking as a strong potential depth signing for the Rays rotation once rumors of his interest in playing for Tampa Bay circulated in Japanese media last year.

Uwasawa can throw up to six pitches, with his Splitter the above average offering despite only being thrown 13% last year, and his fastball showing good spin. But most importantly he boasts above-average command, which is the key ingredient for the Rays to work with the pitcher on unlocking his stuff for the major league level.

For a deep dive on his arsenal, check out this excellent write up from Sports Info Solutions, which includes various GIFs of his stuff.

Last November, Eno Sarris of The Athletic noted that, “[Uwasawa’s] fastball vertical movement (19 IVB) and spin (2650 RPM) would be top 5-10% percent in the league.” He also clocked Uwasawa’s fastball at 92 mph, which is not as ideal from the right hand side, but playable.

All in all, this is a perfect depth signing for the Rays, with little pressure on the player to transition quickly to US pitching expectations, and tons of upside as the Rays will surely need his starting capabilities before the year is through. Add in his personal desire and excitement to join the Rays and this is a Grade-A signing.