Spring forward: Uehara back to Earth in 2014?

Spring forward: Uehara back to Earth in 2014?
February 12, 2014, 12:00 pm
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All this week, Sean McAdam will be examining issues facing the Red Sox as they begin spring training. Today: Koji Uehara and the bullpen. Tomorrow: Can you have too much starting pitching?

Ordinarily, when a team wins a World Series, more than a few players on the roster enjoy "career years'' with performances far above what would otherwise be expected of them.
     
That wasn't the case with the Red Sox. Even their best everyday players had rather routine seasons. David Ortiz was good, but he's been better. Ditto for Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia and Shane Victorino.
     
It's the same with the starting pitching staff: Most were good and fairly consistent, but no one had a year that seemed like an outlier.
     
And then there's Koji Uehara.
     
Uehara wasn't named closer until late June, after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey faltered and were lost to season-ending injuries.
     
Having claimed the role almost by default, Uehara then proceeded to only be baseball's best late-inning reliever for the next four months. From July 1 through the end of the season, Uehara compiled an ERA of 0.22 allowing just 12 hits in 40 innings. He had a remarkable strikeout-to-walk ratio of 52-to-2 and recorded saves in 17 of his 18 save chances.
     
And Uehara didn't stop in the post-season, posting a tidy 0.66 ERA in 13 playoff and World Series appearances.
     
But as the Red Sox report to Fort Myers and begin defense of their title, can Uehara be counted on to duplicate his magical 2013 season? That's unlikely.
     
For one thing, he'll start the season at 38 years old. For another, the workload was more than he'd handled in a while. Add up the October work and Uehara pitched a combined 88 innings. Until last season, his highest innings total for an entire season was 66 1/3 in 2011.
     
Last year, then, represented almost exactly a 25 percent increase over his previous career high in North America.
     
Manager John Farrell has already vowed to ease Uehara into the spring, being careful not to burden him with too much of a workload in February and March.
    
Once the regular season begins, however, that will be more difficult. When save opportunities present themselves, it will be hard not to call on Uehara, given his reliability and efficiency.
     
But Farrell will need to resist the temptation at least occasionally to preserve Uehara for later in the season, and, the Red Sox hope, another long post-season run.
     
For depth purposes, the Sox added Edwin Mujica as a free agent in the off-season, giving them another late-inning weapon who has closing experience. Last year, before suffering a late-season injury, Mujica saved 37 games for the N.L. champion St. Louis Cardinals.
     
Mujica can share the seventh- and eighth-inning responsibilities with Junichi Tazawa (who seemed to grow into the set-up role in the post-season, despite some anxiety about him prior to the start of the playoffs) and Craig Breslow.
     
The deeper and more reliable the set-up crew is, the more Uehara can be preserved. And Mujica is a nice insurance option in the ninth inning.
     
Two other veterans -- Andrew Miller and newcomer Burke Badenhop -- round out the rest of the relief crew. Miller, returning from a freak foot injury that caused him to miss most of the second half of the season, can be devastating when he can successfully command while Badenhop could contribute in the middle innings.
     
Still, it's clear that the Sox' success in the late innings will mostly revolve around Uehara. It helps that Uehara doesn't succeed by overpowering hitters, but rather, outfoxing them with precise command and a split-finger pitch which can be unhittable at times.
     
Because he's such a consistent strike-thrower, Uehara can often get three outs on a dozen (or fewer) pitches, reducing the strain on his arm and body.
     
If it's not realistic to expect Uehara to duplicate 2013, the Sox would gladly take something close to that same performance.
     
And should Uehara stumble or suffer an injury, the Red Sox can take solace in the fact that the reliever who got the final out of the 2013 World Series was hardly the pitcher that would have forecast for that role just 12 months ago.