Over the past two years, Koji Uehara has not only taken Red Sox Nation by storm with his high-fives and affable personality, he has also been among the best late-inning relievers in baseball. However, Uehara has struggled mightily over the past ten days and it’s worth wondering whether those struggles will negatively affect his free agent stock this offseason.
In the 2012-2013 offseason, the Red Sox signed Uehara to a 1 year/$4.25M contract with a vesting option for this season and he immediately delivered in Boston. He was a lockdown arm at the back of the bullpen and once injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey cost the Red Sox their top two closing options, Uehara jumped into the closer role and was even better than he had been before. Through 74.1 regular season innings, Uehara was lights-out as he posted an absurd 1.09 ERA, 12.2 K/9, and 1.1 BB/9 and then was remarkably even better during the World Series run as he had a 0.66 ERA and 0.51 WHIP in 13.2 postseason innings for the Red Sox, winning the MVP award for the American League Championship Series.
Needless to say, that option vested and Uehara was slated to serve as closer on the 2014 Red Sox. And he has done that with aplomb through much of this season. Uehara made the All-Star Game for the first time in his career with an impressive first half which saw him post a 1.65 ERA and 11.7 K/9 in his age 39 season.
Uehara’s success carried into the second half of the season as well and just eleven days ago on August 15th, his ERA stood at 1.27 after a scoreless inning against the Houston Astros. Since August 15th, however, Uehara has imploded and has left serious doubts around his reliability going into next season. Uehara has allowed runs to score in each of his last four appearances and has seen his ERA rise from 1.27 to 2.25 in just a ten-day span. Perhaps it’s just fatigue after a pair of long seasons for Uehara– he has already thrown 60.0 innings this season– but it’s also possible that Uehara’s age could be catching up to the crafty right-hander.
Thus, the forgone conclusion that the Red Sox would extend Uehara this offseason, which has seemed all but certain since Boston opted against dealing him at the deadline, no longer seems so certain. And even if the Red Sox do re-sign him, just this rough patch has likely already subtracted millions off Uehara’s potential contract.
Just a couple of weeks ago, it appeared that Uehara, even with his status of a 39 year old closer, could make a run at receiving a qualifying offer this winter. However, that now seems very unrealistic as the Red Sox would not likely commit something in the range of $15M to a reliever that has seen such pronounced struggles, as brief as those struggles have been. It now appears more realistic that the Red Sox will seek to sign Uehara to a one-year deal worth somewhere in the neighborhood of his original contract of $4.25M. And while the Red Sox don’t have anybody more suited to close at the moment, these struggles could land Uehara back in a setup role come 2015. It’s amazing what can happen in ten days.