Red Sox: Joe Kelly or Koji Uehara more important to re-sign?
The Boston Red Sox finally have stability in their bullpen, which has been a deciding factor in their September push. Yet, who is more important to re-sign?
Both Joe Kelly and Koji Uehara are signed through the end of the 2016 season, with arbitration for Kelly set in 2017. Kelly will only be a free agent in 2019, while Koji will be a free agent next year. Both men are arguably why the bullpen has hit their stride in September, but the Red Sox need to start thinking about what to do with them when the season is over.
Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe feels that Uehara’s return from a pectoral injury has looked almost like a rebirth: “Now he has a late-season body of work to take into free agency, and the Red Sox certainly have to consider re-signing him.” Cafardo also reports Red Sox manager John Farrell stating that he originally felt that they had players in the bullpen to replace the 41-year-old Japanese reliever, but “then we ran up against teams that weren’t great matchups for Brad [Ziegler] where we could take advantage of his strengths. We weren’t in the division as much as we are now, where we have heavily laden right-handed lineups. What Koji has done is allow us to match up through the seventh inning and then turn it over to him.”
Cafardo believes that “there’s a flow, from closer Craig Kimbrel to Uehara in setup to Brad Ziegler as the swingman to Robbie Ross Jr. in high-leverage left-handed situations.” In almost an afterthought, Cafardo adds, “And Joe Kelly can be used late in games when a strikeout is needed.”
There lies the real issue: is Kelly just a strikeout man or does he have a real role on the Red Sox?
After being brought back from yet another stint in the minors to find his game, much like last season, Kelly seemed to find his own groove this September. In 8.2 innings of relief, Kelly didn’t allow a run. He gave up six hits and three walks while striking out 11 batters, earning him a .188 opposing batting average. Even if one were to pair that with his earlier relief numbers this season, Kelly still has a .217 average in 12.1 innings. That total is good enough for fourth place on the active roster, behind closer Craig Kimbrel (.151), Clay Buchholz (.198), and Koji (.202).
Those three men had much more innings of relief work to set those averages, but the most fascinating one is Buchholz and how he was where Kelly is now.
Buchholz was in limbo, originally a starting pitcher but thrown into the bullpen a number of times when his game fell upon hard times. He wasn’t just any pitcher in the rotation, he was the 12-1 starter with a 1.74 ERA in 2013, when the Red Sox last won the World Series. Buchholz was achieving ace status when 2014 and 2015 came, totally wiping all of that away. With a 3-8 record in June and an ERA ballooning with every game, many Red Sox Nation members wanted to run him out of town; however, Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox president of baseball operations, kept him as protection for the rotation down the stretch. The gamble paid off, as Steven Wright got hurt and Buchholz filled in nicely for him.
Buchholz is now 5-1 with a 3.14 ERA in his last 15 appearances, both as a starter and a reliever. In his last two starts, Buchholz picked up the victory and only gave up a combined three runs in 13 innings.
Will that be Kelly in a year or even in the playoffs? What if one of the other starters gets hurt? Does Kelly get the nod to try being a starter again?
It’s not like Uehara’s going to start a game. Farrell may trust him for every eighth inning, but he’s not going to stretch the aging Koji for six or seven innings.
With that in mind, the Red Sox may have to look at pleasing Kelly in arbitration before deciding whether they still need Koji. Otherwise, Kelly could feel slighted and ask for even more money. Then again, he’s still under contract control; Koji is not.
By not being the closer anymore, Uehara couldn’t possibly ask for the same $18 million for two years that he signed with the Red Sox in the 2014-2015 offseason. Kimbrel has been lights out for Boston, making Uehara a very reliable set-up man in the eighth inning. That could be Kelly’s job next season, but Uehara doesn’t look like he’s slowing down, either.
Since returning in early September, Koji has gone nine innings without allowing a run. He’s given up just five hits, with no walks and 11 strikeouts, to post a .172 opposing batting average. That’s been done with a fastball that only reaches 87 mph, according to FanGraphs.com.
Kelly’s fastball might reach almost 97 mph on average, but it also means the 28-year-old could burn out his arm, if it hasn’t shown signs of that already. Do the Red Sox want to risk money on a 42-year-old reliever, even if he’s been more consistent than a younger pitcher who has a canon for an arm and still has potential for the starting rotation?
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Everything will depend on how the Red Sox view Kelly’s role going forward. If they still see him as a possible starter, they may need to pay him big money just to keep him happy for another two years. If he’s to be a set-up reliever for Kimbrel, then Koji may need to walk back to the rising sun on the Japanese horizon. If he can’t beat out Uehara though, Kelly may take a backseat to Koji’s contract negotiations this winter.