Former team: Texas Rangers
Position: Relief pitcher
Contract: 1-year, $4.25 million
Projected role: Middle reliever
For a team supposedly in “rebuilding mode,” the Boston Red Sox made plenty of noise this offseason. The acquisitions of Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster and Joel Hanrahan received attention and emitted the impression that management sought to assemble a team capable of competing for an AL East title this season. However, the signing of Koji Uehara, one of baseball’s hidden gems, on an inexpensive contract, didn’t receive the appraise it warranted.
Uehara, who spent 10 successful years playing for the Yomiuri Giants of Japan, came to America in 2009 as a starting pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. Despite pitching well in 12 starts, Baltimore moved him to the bullpen the next season, and he’s thrived there for the past three years.
In 145 innings as a reliever, he has a 2.36 earned run average, a strikeout per nine innings ratio of 11.4 (league average in 2011 was 7.1) and has only surrendered 17 walks.
Uehara posted career-bests for ERA (1.75) and WHIP (0.639) in Texas last year, but only saw 36 innings due to strained right lat muscle which landed him on the disabled list. This injury, and his age are the only reasons for concern; but even if Uehara gets injured or pitches poorly, Boston possesses the money to make such a situation inconsequential.
The 37-year-old fits in perfectly with Boston’s arsenal of right-handed relievers that includes Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, Daniel Bard and Junichi Tazawa.
Hanrahan will start the season as the closer, but the setup man position is less definite.
Bard was spectacular in the bullpen for three seasons, but he’s not even a guarantee to make the roster after his meltdown last season.
Bailey’s late-inning experience makes him an obvious candidate, but his injury history brings up major red flags.
Based on last year’s numbers, Tazawa or Uehara make the most sense, but I’d expect to see all four in the eighth inning at some point this season, and perhaps even in the ninth if Hanrahan falters.
The market for relief pitchers, and more specifically closers, is ridiculous, and the Red Sox wisely chose the cost-friendly Uehara (although they did splurge on Hanrahan, but that’s a topic for another day). His contract is team-friendly for two reasons: Boston only has to commit to him for one year, and the guaranteed money isn’t excessive.
The best counter-example to the shrewd signing of Uehara would be the exorbitant contract handed out to Brandon League by the Los Angeles Dodgers. League signed for $23 million over three years, which could amount to $33 million with incentives. He received this large contract solely based on his status as a “proven closer”, and not based on his performance.
Take a look at the last three seasons for Uehara and League, and keep in mind the differences in contracts:
Uehara surpasses League in just about every category, and in most cases, it’s not even close.
More important than the financial benefits of the deal, Uehara improves a bullpen that blew an AL-worst 39 percent of its save opportunities last season.
With the additions of Uehara and Hanrahan, the possible returns of Bailey and Bard, a strong core of left-handers and an expanded role for Tazawa, expect the Red Sox to go from the worst bullpen in the AL last season, to one of the best in 2013.
Jackson Alexander can be reached at email@example.com.