Koji Uehara’s New Contract A Big Win For Red Sox Despite Any Concerns

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Koji UeharaThe Boston Red Sox are counting on Koji Uehara to age well.

The Red Sox on Thursday re-signed Uehara to a two-year contract reportedly worth $18 million. Uehara endured a late-season rough patch and will turn 40 before Opening Day, but Boston made a sensible decision in inking the veteran closer to a two-year pact, as the potential reward far outweighs the risk.

Plain and simple, Uehara has been one of the best closers in Major League Baseball the last two seasons, with the exception of a six-appearance stretch in late August/early September. While one shouldn’t ignore Uehara’s late-season swoon entirely, especially given the right-hander’s age and workload, one also shouldn’t view it as the beginning of a significant drop-off.

Without the luxury of a crystal ball, we obviously don’t know what the future holds. Instead, we — or, in this case, the Red Sox — must make what we deem to be the best decisions based on the totality of every situation. For Boston, Uehara was the best closer option available — internally or externally — and $18 million is a reasonable figure for two years of a pitcher who has shown an ability to be lights out.

Former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera signed a two-year, $30 million contract following the 2010 season. Rivera obviously was on a different planet than any other closer in MLB history, but he had just turned 41 and posted numbers comparable to those posted by Uehara in 2014.

Rivera had 33 saves, a 1.80 ERA, a 0.83 WHIP and a 4.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 appearances spanning 60 innings in 2010. Uehara, whose 2014 numbers seem lackluster when stacked up against his insane 2013 campaign, is coming off a season in which he had 26 saves, a 2.52 ERA, a 0.92 WHIP and a 10.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 appearances spanning 64 1/3 innings.

It’s worth noting Uehara had a 1.27 ERA on Aug. 15. His 18.8 percent swinging strike rate in 2014 was second only to Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, who, unlike Uehara, is 26 and throws about 7,000 miles per hour.

Uehara’s 1.75 ERA since the beginning of 2013 ranks second among major league relievers with at least 85 innings pitched — behind only the Kansas City Royals’ Wade Davis (0.99). He has the lowest WHIP (0.73) of any reliever and the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (10.7).

Teams are expected to pay for future potential rather than past performance, which is exactly why the idea of not re-signing Uehara was even entertained by those outside the organization. Father Time has a tendency to swing from the heels, and Uehara seemingly limped into free agency.

But Uehara, while aging, is a pitcher who thrives on pinpoint command and devastating deception rather than blowing hitters away. It’s an approach that’s conducive enough with pitching into one’s 40’s that the Red Sox can feel confident Uehara will make good on his contract, which could wind up being a steal when you consider a qualifying offer this season is valued at $15.3 million for one year. The key will be keeping Uehara’s workload within reason over the next two seasons so that he’s positioned to succeed.

“He keeps himself in remarkable shape. He’s a very diligent work, a very hard worker. He knows exactly what he needs to do to get ready to pitch, and he’s very efficient, as you guys know, when he’s out there pitching,” Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said Thursday during a conference call. “The wear and tear, and whatever the appearances and the innings are, when he’s going right, he’s not working as hard as some of those other guys are to get through those innings.”

Uehara has aged like fine wine to this point. There’s no sense dumping out the bottle when there’s still vino to be consumed.

Photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images

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