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Naoyuki Uwasawa has had his eye on joining the Rays for years

The right-hander from Japan says Tampa Bay’s reputation helping pitchers was a big attraction when he decided to come to the United States.
 
Rays manager Kevin Cash shakes hands with pitcher Naoyuki Uwasawa as spring training commences Wednesday  in Port Charlotte.
Rays manager Kevin Cash shakes hands with pitcher Naoyuki Uwasawa as spring training commences Wednesday in Port Charlotte. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 15|Updated Feb. 15

PORT CHARLOTTE — Naoyuki Uwasawa was playing for the Japanese national team against a touring squad of major-leaguers after the 2018 season when he first started thinking about coming over to the United States to pitch.

He began to pay closer attention in terms of how and where he might fit in, and said he quickly noticed that pitchers seemed to flourish with the Rays.

“I kind of tried to watch a lot of games over here and stuff,” Uwasawa said via team interpreter Taishi Terashima. “A lot of guys came to the Rays, and they became successful as pitchers. So, 2018, that’s when everything kind of started.”

Five years later, Uwasawa made the leap.

And he landed, at least for now, with the Rays.

“We had a few (Zoom) meetings with the Rays and pitching coach Kyle Snyder,” Uwasawa said. “Obviously (I) thought that this was the right spot to be to continue to play in the States, so I’m looking forward to working with all the guys with the Rays.”

When weighing his options in the United States, Naoyuki Uwasawa thought the Rays would be best for him long term.
When weighing his options in the United States, Naoyuki Uwasawa thought the Rays would be best for him long term. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The Rays were interested to a point, offering only a minor-league contract (for $225,000) with the chance for the right-handed starter to earn decent money if he makes it to the majors — a $2.5 million salary, plus up to $1 million more in innings-pitched incentives.

He said at least one other big-league team offered a major-league deal — and thus more guaranteed money — but with time running out on his posting window by the Nippon Ham Fighters, he made a decision based on what he thought would be best long term.

“This is my year that I’ve got to show everyone in the States what I’m capable of doing, and that’s why (I chose) the Rays,” he said. “I think they offer me a lot of opportunity to grow as a pitcher, so I think this is my spot.”

The Rays don’t necessarily have an opening in the majors for Uwasawa, with a trio of set starters in Zach Eflin, Aaron Civale and Zack Littell, and youngsters Ryan Pepiot and Taj Bradley first in line for the two other turns in the rotation.

But they were willing to take what is essentially a low-cost, low-risk look over the next month or so and see what they have. (Uwasawa also has a March 23 assignment clause in his contract, meaning that if another team says it will put him on the 40-man roster, the Rays either have to do so or let him go.)

And he is willing to take his chances.

“I’m going to compete for a spot on the opening (day) roster,” Uwasawa said. “But if that doesn’t happen, I’m going to still try to get better as a pitcher. Even in Triple A, nothing’s going to change.”

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Though nowhere near the status of Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani and newcomer Yoshinobu Yamamoto with the Dodgers, Uwasawa’s arrival has drawn a handful of Japanese media to Rays camp.

“It’s an exciting story,” said Junko Ichimura, a reporter for the Hochi Shimbun newspaper. “We all know how hard it is to make the opening day roster on a minor-league contract.”

Uwasawa certainly made a good impression on teammates and bosses in throwing his first bullpen session during Wednesday’s camp-opening workout. (Bradley, for example, said he was intrigued by his delivery and tried it while playing catch.)

Naoyuki Uwasawa's arrival in Rays camp brought Japanese media to Port Charlotte.
Naoyuki Uwasawa's arrival in Rays camp brought Japanese media to Port Charlotte. [ MARC TOPKIN | Times ]

Afterward, with help from an interpreter, Uwasawa talked and laughed with baseball operations president Erik Neander and manager Kevin Cash.

“Just a very personable guy, impressive guy,” Cash said. “He’s done a lot of really good things over in that league. And we’re fortunate that we have him over here.

“He seemed very eager to get with Kyle, see what was going to help him be the best version of himself over here in this league. But just impressed with how excited he was to be here and kind of ingrain himself within the clubhouse.”

Plus, though he’s 30 and has been playing pro ball since 2013, he still has youthful exuberance.

“I asked — I can’t believe it — I asked him how long he’s played for, and he said ‘12 years,’ ” Cash relayed. “He looks like he’s 18 years old.”

Uwasawa apparently feels like it, saying that despite throwing at least 160 innings in his three most recent seasons, and four of the last six, that he’s up for whatever workload the Rays have in mind.

What he did in Japan — 70-62, 3.19 in working 1,118 1/3 innings over 173 games, with three All-Star selections — would be welcomed.

Right-hander Burch Smith, also in camp with the Rays after several seasons in Japan and Korea, saw Uwasawa pitch for Nippon and is confident he can make the transition.

“Absolutely,” Smith said. “Great command of the zone. He’s definitely a workhorse. He’s a great pitcher. And I’m excited he’s here; I told him he made a good decision coming to this team.”

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