Red Sox Christmas Future: Does Koji Uehara Start His End?
With the addition of closer Craig Kimbrel, will Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara start as the closer or does he start the end to his career?
Luke Strickland of Bleacher Report wrote about what teams had to look forward to in 2016. In his report, Strickland highlighted a particular part of the Boston Red Sox: “Even with reliable closer Koji Uehera on the roster, Boston was always in the market for another late-inning option. In that process, Boston added one of the best relief arms in MLB. Craig Kimbrel struck out over 36 percent of the batters he faced and posted a 2.45 ERA in 2015, and it was considered a bad year. Since 2011, no reliever has given his team more value.”
Kimbrel is 27 years old. Uehara is 40 years old. It’s not much of a stretch to think that Kimbrel’s youth may give him the inside track to being Boston’s top closer for the foreseeable future. For Koji, the offseason acquisition means every injury or bad outing will be examined very closely, as some baseball experts will claim that his days as the team’s closer, or even a reliever, are numbered.
Ian Browne of MLB.com tweeted the possible beginning of the end over a month ago:
After suffering a broken wrist, a ‘team first’ approach to communication with the team seemed appropriate. However, after the Red Sox also picked up a couple more relievers in the offseason, Koji’s rehab looks more like an excuse for any doubters to lay into him and his status with the Red Sox. Baseball-Reference.com projects Uehara to post a 3.12 ERA, with 53 strikeouts to 13 walks in 52 innings at the age of 41.
The numbers dictate a projection of 14 saves, but that’s under the old guard of Kimbrel not being on the team. With Kimbrel, Koji’s save total should be much lower, if not zero. However, if Koji’s wrist is healed properly, his age should not be a huge factor in his ability to be a set-up man for Kimbrel. Remember, just two years ago Uehara helped the Red Sox win the World Series as their closer, giving up only one run in 13 postseason innings. He was even named the most valuable player in the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers. How often does a relief pitcher get the MVP award for a series?
Even in 2015, before the injury, Koji was carrying the bullpen. He struck out 47 opposing batters and only walked nine while earning 25 saves in 27 opportunities.
That kind of dominance has nothing to do with arm strength as much as it has to do with strategy. FanGraphs.com clocked Koji’s fastball at 87 mph and his splitter at 79 mph last season, both only one digit lower in speed than his career averages. The wily veteran has used location as the key to his success, essentially using only two pitches to get opposing sluggers out. Even with Kimbrel being younger, Koji’s success or failure will not be dictated by a stronger arm passing him by.
If the doubters want to use age, strength, or any other pieces of evidence to prove that Koji will soon be on his way out, they can go ahead. The plan looks to be that Kimbrel is the new team closer. However, if the great and powerful Kimbrel gets hurt, you can bet your last dollar that Koji will make a sweet return to the closer role in his place. As long as that wrist has healed completely, there is very little to suggest that Koji will be anywhere but Boston for 2016 and possibly even longer.