Boston Red Sox: Former closer Koji Uehara signs with Chicago Cubs


Former Boston Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara has agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.

Another former member of the Boston Red Sox has found his way to Chicago.

Right-handed reliever Koji Uehara has joined the Chicago Cubs on a one-year deal. Jon Heyman of Fan Rag confirmed an agreement had been reached last week, while ESPN Chicago’s Jesse Rogers revealed this morning that it will be a 1-year, $6 million deal.

The Red Sox reportedly made Uehara an offer earlier this month before moving on to Tyler Thornburg, whom they acquired in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers to fill the eighth inning setup role.

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Koji had a three year stretch from 2013 to 2015 in which he was one of the game’s most dominant closers, but the Red Sox choose to move him out of that role this year out of concerns over his age and durability. Boston traded for Craig Kimbrel to take over the ninth, pushing Uehara back to a setup role.

Those same concerns left the Red Sox hesitant to turn to Uehara for another season, but given the modest price he signed for, should they have pushed harder to retain him?

Thornburg is expected to make just north of $2 million in his first year of arbitration, a price differential from the deal Uehara ultimately received that has significance for a Red Sox team adamant about staying below the luxury tax threshold. Boston could conceivably have cut salary elsewhere, allowing them to afford Koji, while keeping Travis Shaw and the other prospects dealt to Milwaukee. The luxury tax concerns can’t be overlooked, but this decision boiled down mostly to which pitcher the Red Sox felt more comfortable trusting in the setup role.

Uehara’s 3.45 ERA represents his worst season as a reliever, aside from a 2011 season when he was limited to a mere 18 innings for the Texas Rangers. His walk rate was a career-high 2.1 BB/9 and he coughed up home runs at a rate far above his career level.

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Pitchers on the wrong side of 40 are expected to decline, so the days of putting up dazzling numbers may be behind him. Uehara’s dip in velocity has been pointed out as a factor, with his fastball clocked at an average of 86.7 mph this past season. He has never needed a blazing fastball, with the crafty veteran relying more on pinpoint location and a devastating splitter to get hitters out. A drop in velocity effects him less than it would most other relievers, but it can still come back to bite him. Losing the ability to dial up his fastball when necessary leaves him with less margin for error. If his location falters and he leaves a fastball hanging over the plate, major league hitters are going to crush it.

Uehara missed time in 2016 with a pectoral injury, but returned to toss 11 shutout innings in September to prove that he’s still capable of being an effective late inning option when healthy. The problem is that he’ll be 42 when next season opens, so in addition to his declining skills, Uehara will remain an injury risk.

Uehara has more of a track record, but Thornburg is coming off of a spectacular season in which he posted a 2.15 ERA and struck out 90 batters over 67 innings. The 28-year old presents more upside without the risk that comes with Koji’s age.

Red Sox fans know what Koji is capable of, while Thornburg is less of a known commodity (be honest, how many Brewers games did you watch last year?). This may leave some cautious of trusting Thornburg, but he’s a very good pitcher that should thrive as the setup man in Boston. He’s not quite as good as Koji was in his best years, but he’s better and more reliable at this stage of their respective careers.

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The bright side is that Uehara will join several former Red Sox players in Chicago, so if the Cubs make it back to the World Series then we’ll have one more reason to root for them again – unless of course they are facing the Red Sox.