Why the Red Sox should re-sign Koji Uehara


Sep 25, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara (19) pitches during the ninth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Entering this offseason, the Boston Red Sox appear to have a myriad of options for the 2015 closer role. Many fans have probably been licking their chops the last couple of seasons in anticipation of stud reliever Junichi Tazawa claiming that important title. Others who were thoroughly disappointed with 2013 offseason acquisition Edward Mujica‘s first half had to have liked what they saw from the big righty during an open audition period in the second half of the year.

Maybe you’re one who was not satisfied with either of the duo and is instead intrigued by this offseason’s crop of free agent closers. Other than Koji Uehara (who will be discussed shortly), closers with expiring contracts in 2014 include Francisco Rodriguez, David Robertson, Jim Johnson, and Casey Janssen. All four have had varying amounts of success through their careers and could thrive in Boston.

This post, however, is all about why Ben Cherington and company should re-sign Uehara in the coming months – a pitcher who will be 40 years old on Opening Day 2015 and had his struggles in the 2014 campaign.

REASON #1: The alleged demise of Koji Uehara was exaggerated

From the time that Koji grabbed the bull by the horns on June 26, 2013 against the Colorado Rockies at Fenway and took over the closer position, all the way through June 22, 2014 when he was “lit up” for two runs and his ERA “skyrocketed” to 1.30, he was filthy. Straight up, for a full calendar year, Koji was undoubtedly the best in all of baseball at his particular job.

Even after that midseason bump in the road against the red-hot Oakland Athletics, the Japanese thrower still produced solid work until the middle of August. Then, Koji began to show his overuse, hit a wall, and displayed the fatigue of being the constant, go-to bullpen arm for nearly nine months (including the 2013 postseason.) Three straight outings between Aug. 16 and Aug. 22 saw the pitcher surrender runs – the most tortuous being a five-run nightmare against the Mariners. When you analyze a closer’s ERA, one, two, or three bad outings can severely inflate the statistic.

After an Aug. 15 scoreless appearance against the Astros, Uehara’s ERA still stood at a sparkling 1.27. After the nightmare against Seattle – just one week later – that figure spiked to 2.28. Back-to-back tough outings to begin the regular season’s final month had Uehara’s ERA top out at a still very respectable 2.64. (Keep in mind that at this point, the games had significantly less meaning and the adrenaline of the 2013 season and start of 2014 had to be wearing off.)

Koji finished the year removed from the ninth inning role with three straight scoreless outings and wrapped up his season with the following stat line. 6-5, 2.52 ERA, 26 SV, 64.1 IP, 51 H, 18 ER, 10 HR, 8 BB, 80 SO

No, it was not a great follow-up on 2013’s masterpiece, but the supposed permanent end of Koji’s days as Boston’s closer is in my mind flawed.

REASON #2: He can handle the pressure of pitching in Boston

Eric Gagne. Bobby Jenks. Andrew Bailey. Joel Hanrahan. Do I need to keep going?

Some pitchers, closers in particular, are simply not made out for pitching under the bright lights of “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark.” Yes, it may be unfair to throw complete blame on the above four pitchers for their lack of success. Injuries happen, closers go through rough patches, and maybe their plugs as closers are prematurely pulled on occasion.

Thus far in his two seasons in Beantown, injuries and inconsistencies have not been a part of Koji’s game. He can pitch in big games, in a city that expects yearly success, and has had just a few shining moments during October baseball as well. The otherworldly ratio of strikeouts to walks is a nice touch as well.

April 13, 2013; Boston, MA USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Joel Hanrahan (52) pitches during the ninth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

REASON #3: A short-term, less pricy contract is likely coming

I’d be lying if I said that the vision of Tazawa coming in from the bullpen for the ninth, throwing his blazing, mid-90s fastballs to punch out hitter after hitter wasn’t intriguing.

The 28-year-old is not arbitration eligible until after the 2015 season and barring an extension will become a free agent in 2017. Closing is the most obvious task in baseball where those in their 30s and even 40s can still find many successes in the game. This is pure speculation, but it seems that Tazawa is satisfied as the setup man for now.

Why not sign Koji to a two-year deal and let him finish out his career in Boston? Judging by how Tazawa has pitched during his years with the Sox so far, this could be a nice transition to success in the closer’s role. At his age, Koji is unlikely to demand a contract more than two or three seasons and coming off a bit of a down season, I’d be surprised if the money was increased.

Jul 29, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara (19) and relief pitcher Junichi Tazawa (36) in the outfield for batting practice prior to a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Entering this offseason the primary focus for Red Sox management will be (and should be) starting pitching and the infield. The bullpen figures to be a strength again in 2015 even without Koji. The depth is there and Tazawa and Mujica have had great success in their careers. I say give Koji one more contract and start with him as your 2015 Opening Day closer.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment below!