The Boston Red Sox need to prepare for life after Koji Uehara.
Uehara, who is set to become a free agent, is the Red Sox?s best closer option for 2015. Both general manager Ben Cherington and manager John Farrell already have expressed interest in re-signing the veteran right-hander. But given Uehara?s late-season swoon, his mileage and his battle against history, the Red Sox also must figure out a Plan B while sorting out their bullpen for next season.
Uehara will turn 40 years old three days before the Red Sox open the 2015 season against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Only five players in Major League Baseball history — Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm and Doug Jones — have saved 25 or more games at age 40 or older. Eckersley and Wilhelm are Hall of Famers. Rivera and Hoffman will be enshrined in Cooperstown soon enough.
Admittedly, that isn?t exactly a scientific way of looking at the situation. Pitchers typically don?t find themselves in a position to close games into their 40s, and the closer?s role itself has evolved over time. Plus, saves hardly are the be-all and end-all when it comes to measuring a reliever?s success. However, as Uehara enters his fourth decade on this earth, the Red Sox need to be reasonable in their expectations for next season if they re-sign the Japanese pitcher.
Uehara is entering his seventh major league season but his 17th season between the United States and Japan. He has compiled 1,899 1/3 innings between the two destinations. Jamey Wright is the only active major league reliever with more mileage (2,036 2/3 innings).
While Uehara showed no signs of slowing down until a six-appearance stretch in late August/early September in which he allowed 10 earned runs on 14 hits over 4 2/3 innings, the rough patch should serve as a cautionary tale. The Red Sox relied very heavily on Uehara the last two seasons and he isn?t getting any younger. There?s a high risk of fatigue settling in, even though Uehara downplayed the role his workload played in his late-season struggles.
The Red Sox simply can?t afford to put all of their eggs in the Uehara basket, even if they do re-sign him with the intention of him carrying the closer?s torch one more year. They?ll need to proactively monitor his workload, whether it?s by cutting down on the number of back-to-back appearances or his total innings.
Edward Mujica, who is under contract for 2015, could again serve as the Red Sox?s de factor backup closer, though he had mixed results pitching out of Boston?s bullpen in 2014. A more forward-looking move would be for the Red Sox to begin grooming one of their younger hurlers for the role, especially since Boston could be looking for a long-term solution as soon as 2015, when Uehara might be done and Mujica?s contract runs out. Rubby De La Rosa and Brandon Workman are two viable candidates for a potential plunge into a ninth-inning gig.
Uehara was incredible during the Red Sox?s 2013 World Series run. He was equally as dominant for much of 2014. But all good things must come to an end. The Red Sox should make every effort to re-sign Uehara but also be mindful of that reality.
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