Red Sox bullpen hinges on set-up man Koji Uehara

Jun 26, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara (19) celebrates after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 26, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara (19) celebrates after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

While Craig Kimbrel is the new man on the scene with some incredible accolades already in his career, the ultimate success of Boston’s bullpen may actually rely on the soon to be 41 year old set-up man in Koji Uehara.

One of the most discussed subjects of the offseason was the acquisition of what Boston hopes will be a shut-down closer in Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel, who was the NL save leader for four straight seasons from 2011-15, has already shown Red Sox Nation what he can bring to the table with some incredible velocity early on in 2016. There is no doubt that Dave Dombrowski had to pull off something to bolster a bullpen that seriously struggled last season, and Kimbrel clearly improves Boston’s relief staff. Still, it appears to me that the success of their pen may still lay with the 40-year old Koji Uehara.

So much of what Dombrowski, and ultimately John Farrell, are expecting out of their relievers will hinge on how Uehara performs in what most expect to be the Japanese righty’€™s last season before retirement. So many teams in MLB now rely on a steady, reliable 1-2 punch to close out games with the ultimate example of course being the current champions in the Kansas City Royals (Wade Davis / Joakim Soria). Also, the Yankees, Orioles and many other squads are focusing on assembling a strong back end of the bullpen just as much as their starting rotation.

The current excitement is clearly surrounding the younger Kimbrel as is always the case with new, big-named additions, whether via trade or free agency, but without Koji comfortably setting in to the set-up role, not much of that will matter. As a fan, you have to love Uehara’s approach though. He just wants to have fun, do his job and win as a team. The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo recently wrote a piece on a Koji’s first spring training appearance since a fractured wrist ended his 2015 and his humility shined through:

“€œI feel that we have a luxury but I need to be on the team to be a part of that so I’m going to try to earn my spot.”

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A great line from Cafardo that underscores Koji’s “roll with the punches”€ mindset: “Uehara, a happy-go-lucky sort, completely understood the acquisition of Kimbrel. In his career, Uehara has been about as good a setup man as he has been a closer, and when asked about the difference, he said, ‘˜None.'”

The guy gets it. He’€™s the ultimate professional and teammate, and he’s willingly handing over the keys to Kimbrel in order to try to get another World Series on his resume.

Another important aspect to Koji’s set-up role will be finally relieving some of the pressure off of Junichi Tazawa. Tazawa has been a rock for the Red Sox for a few seasons now, and Tim Britton of the Providence Journal recently wrote a piece on how it may even be the most €œimportant€ season of his career so far. It’s obvious that he’s been relied on to get Boston out of late-inning jams while simultaneously being their set-up guy, but Farrell probably used Tazawa too much over the last couple years. He has become inconsistent post All-Star break and was shut down in September last season due to €œarm fatigue€. Boston will most definitely still need Junichi at his best, but his role will undoubtedly change in 2016.

It will also be convenient for the Sox to have an easy go-to guy if and when Kimbrel has thrown in two or three save opportunities in a row and requires a night off. Unlike the last few seasons in which they really didn’t have much of an answer in the absence of Uehara or Tazawa on a given day, the bullpen depth is clearly now a strength of the team. Koji understands what it takes to fill both roles and will easily be able to close out a game if need be.

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It probably goes without saying, but the concern is not with Koji’s ability to perform in whatever role is needed, but more about his health and if he’ll be able to maintain himself throughout the course of another 162-game season. He did tell Nick Cafardo that he “felt great”, but it’s very early in the process. In order for Boston to turn things around in 2016 and for Dombrowski’s master plan to find success, Uehara needs to stay available for the role that has been carved out. If he isn’t around to set up Mr. Kimbrel, we’€™ll all watch the bullpen dominoes fall.