Boston Red Sox: More likely to return in 2017 – Brad Ziegler or Koji Uehara?

Apr 16, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara (19) pitches during the eighth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 16, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara (19) pitches during the eighth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Red Sox have some decisions to make with their bullpen with several relievers hitting free agency. Will Brad Ziegler or Koji Uehara be back?

Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has said on a number of occasions that one of his top priorities this offseason will be acquiring a reliable reliever to secure the eighth inning role. With the team in the market for bullpen help we can expect that at least one of the core relievers from this year’s roster could be on their way out.

The Red Sox have a number of relievers that saw their contracts expire at the end of the season, including a pair of arms that were used to fill the eighth inning role. Brad Ziegler and Koji Uehara are both free agents that have experience in the setup role, yet thus far there haven’t been signs that the Red Sox are focused on bringing either of them back next year.

So far Boston’s offseason plans seem to be in a holding pattern as Dombrowski patiently waits to see how the CBA talks pan out so that he can plan a budget based on potential changes to the luxury tax. After we roll into December we’ll hopefully have a better idea of the new landscape, at which point Dombrowski will spring into action. He has his eyes set on high upside options like former Kansas City Royals closer Greg Holland, while chasing one of the elite relievers on the market to form a two-headed bullpen monster with Craig Kimbrel is appealing if they have money to spend.

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If the Red Sox strike out on those options, or if they find out they don’t have much room in the budget for an expensive reliever, then what? Turning to known commodities like Ziegler and Uehara could prove to be a solid backup plan. It’s unlikely that they both return, but which of these relievers has the better chance to stick around in Boston?

Ziegler was brilliant in 33 appearances following a mid-season trade that brought him to town, posting a 1.52 ERA and a 9.40 K/9 that far exceeded his career strikeout rate. The submariner’s deceptive delivery induces a lot of ground balls, putting him among the top relievers in getting double-plays. He also rarely allows the ball to leave the park, coughing up only one home run during his time with the Red Sox.

Despite those solid numbers, manager John Farrell seemed to treat Ziegler as a situational reliever rather than one he could trust to primarily handle the eighth inning. He also has a troubling habit of issuing free passes, which can make any manager uneasy late in a tight game.

Uehara had an outstanding run as the Red Sox closer from 2013 to 2015, but this year he started to show some signs of decline in posting his worst ERA (3.45) since 2011. He’s lost some zip on his fastball, making it far easier for hitters to tee off when he leaves one over the plate. Koji allowed eight home runs in only 47 innings this year, while also seeing a drastic rise in his walk rate.

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He has never been an overpowering pitcher, but Uehara’s devastating splitter kept hitters off balance, giving his fastball deceptive speed – or “sneaky cheese,” as Dennis Eckersley would say. He can still get by even with reduced velocity as long as he has the split darting out of the bottom of the zone. At times he was throwing it flat where hitters could hammer it, but he appeared to be back on track following his return from injury in September when he tossed 11 scoreless innings down the stretch.

The main concern with Koji is his age, which will be 42 in April when next season begins. It’s fair to question how much he has left in the tank, while his injury history further complicates his projections going forward.

Both of these relievers are proven options, yet each comes with red flags to be cautious of. Those flaws could convince the Red Sox to move on from both, but they can’t start letting all their free agent relievers get away without securing replacements.

Boston would be better off relying on Ziegler due to the age and injury concerns surrounding Koji, but that’s also what makes him less likely to return. While the Red Sox don’t view Ziegler as a fit for the ninth inning, he’ll enter free agency looking for a team that needs to fill that role and values the “proven closer” tag. Someone will pay him closer money and the Red Sox aren’t going to match for a pitcher they aren’t even confident in making the primary setup man.

Next: Carson Smith key to bullpen decisions?

Uehara intends to pitch in 2017 and seems to like it here in Boston. As long as he’s willing to sign at a steep discount from his previous salary, Dombrowski could find room for him in the bullpen while committing more financial resources toward a more dominant setup option.