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Koji Uehara Back in 2014: This Good or Bad?

Koji Uehara

When the Red Sox signed relief pitcher Koji Uehara this past offseason, the deal was announced as one year for $4.25 million. However, WEEI’s Alex Speier reported the other day that Uehara is about to hit a previously unknown contract milestone that will keep him in Boston for the 2014 season as well. Uehara’s contract states that if he appears in 55 games this season, an option for 2014 at $4.25 million is automatically exercised. Uehara has already appeared in 54 games this year. This clause also states that if Uehara finishes 35 games in 2013, his pay bumps up to 5 million for 2014.

Uehara’s Impact so far

Koji Uehara has been a savior for the Red Sox this season. He was originally signed to be a 7th or 8th inning guy in the set up role after filling that role for both the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles, but injuries and poor performances forced him into the closer role in late June. Uehara has excelled in the role, going 12-15 on save opportunities with a 1.35 ERA and an equally impressive 0.69 walks and hits per inning pitch average. Those averages are all-star caliber. For those who think his numbers may be a fluke, take a look at his superhuman accuracy.

A former 20 game winner and eight time all-star in Japan as a starter while playing the best of the best in Japan’s Central League, Uehara came over to the states to begin his MLB career in 2009. He was a starter that year, but switched to the bullpen starting in 2010. Since becoming a reliever, he has never walked more than 9 batters in a season. Here’s the astonishing number, his strikeout to walk ratio since entering the majors is the best in major league history for pitchers with more than 100 innings pitched at about 8.02 strikeouts for every walk.  Red Sox manager John Farrell can always put Uehara in the game knowing that he won’t beat himself.

Given Uehara’s success in 2013, 2014 should be more of the same, right?

Not necessarily. One thing to keep in mind with Uehara is that although this is only his fifth year in the MLB, he has been pitching professionally in Japan since 1999 and is now 38 years old. He has had arm troubles in the past and his arm may feel even older since Japanese teams usually rely a lot more heavily on their star pitchers than American teams do. Also, this is only the second season of Uehara’s MLB career in which he has topped 50 appearances. What he does have is the mentality to be a closer and perform under pressure. He has excelled in Japan’s widely regarded Central League and on the Olympic stage. As long as his arm holds up, Uehara has what it takes to be a big time closer.

Is Uehara the best option to close for the Sox in 2014?

I’m hoping the Red Sox already learned this lesson when they didn’t want to pay up and re-sign all-star closer Jonathan Papelbon two years ago: Closers are a rare breed. When you have a good one, don’t assume the next guy in line can just step in and match their success. Over the past two seasons, the Red Sox have acquired/signed Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan, and Bobby Jenks to try and fill the closer role. Each one of those guys is injured and have not had any success to speak of in a Boston uniform. Although each of those players cost less than Papelbon, think about it this way.

Papelbon signed in Philadelphia for 4 years and 50 million (about 12.5 million/season). Meanwhile, they gave Jenks 6 million a season, Bailey is making about 4 million, and Hanrahan is making about 7 million this year. They could have had Papelbon for about 4 million less, saved two roster spots and actually had a good closer.

Although Uehara isn’t quite as proven of a closer as Papelbon, he is still having success so if it’s not broken why fix it? The most the Sox will have to pay him next season is 5 million, not bad for an above average MLB closer and they don’t have to overpay on a free agent whose unproven.

So in my opinion, this clause is the best of both worlds for the Red Sox. They get to keep their closer for cheap without signing him long term. At least if Uehara breaks down next year the Sox got one great year out of him and they aren’t stuck with him after 2014. If he is the same Uehara as this season, then the Red Sox get a major bargain.

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