McAdam: Could be Koji time elsewhere if Sox don't contend

McAdam: Could be Koji time elsewhere if Sox don't contend
June 13, 2014, 10:45 am
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BOSTON - In the top of the ninth inning, the bullpen door swung open in right field and, as is almost always the case when the Red Sox own a lead heading into the final inning, out trotted Koji Uehara.

Uehara sprinted across the bullpen without a trace of worry. This was just another save situation on another night, and it would end the way so many have in the past calendar year: with Uehara retiring the side almost effortlessly and the Red Sox celebrating a victory.

Since taking over the closer's role, Uehara has performed with an efficiency and dependability that defies logic. This season, he's converted all 14 of his save chances, compiled a comical 39-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio and pitched to a 0.63 ERA, an improvement over last season's already microscopic 1.09 ERA.

Late last June, essentially out of other options, the Sox turned to Uehara to close games. He's failed to preserve the save exactly one time since then.


He doesn't do it with a high-90s fastball, but instead, with a fastball that comfortably sits at 87-89. It's his devastating split-finger fastball that tricks most hitters, who fish for a pitch that often bounces in the dirt around home plate.

Fans wildly applaud his every arrival to the mound, secure that the game is virtually over. There's none of the attendant anxiety associated with closers who seem to stage some sort of high-wire act before escaping with the lead intact.

Uehara operated with a surgeon's precision, no sweat visible. More than once, manager John Farrell has termed Uehara's ninth inning as "the most comfortable inning that we have" -- high praise indeed.

"I would hope that people aren't taking him for granted," said Jon Lester, whose seventh win of the season was secured by Uehara Thursday night. "What he's been able to do over the last year, year and a half, is pretty incredible. If people don't know who he is, after the World Series and the playoffs, they're not really paying attention. I'm glad he's on our team I'm glad he's in the back of our bullpen.

"He makes our lives a lot easier."

The question might be, however: for how much longer?

If the Red Sox can't play their way back into the playoff picture in the American Leauge -- they sit eight games out in the division and four and a half out of the second wild card spot -- Uehara will become a logical trade chip for the Sox.

There's nothing more extraneous than a dominant closer on a team playing out the string. That goes double for a closer who is 1) approaching free agency after this season and 2) will turn 40 next April.

And this season, even more than most, there seems to be real need among some contending teams. While clubs typically try to acquire a reliever to bolster their bullpen depth, the availability of a premier closer is a more rare occurrence.

Oakland and Detroit, arguably the two best teams in the American League, are experiencing issues with their closers. Oakland dealt for Jim Johnson last winter, but he's been a major disappointment, with a 5.88 ERA costing him the closer's role to Sean Doolittle.

Detroit's Joe Nathan, meanwhile, continues to hold the title of closer, but with an ERA of 7.04 ERA and a 1.565 WHIP, for how much longer?

Other candidates who could use a ninth-inning upgrade include the Angels and Orioles.

Even if the Red Sox make their season interesting, it's hard to know what the team will do with Uehara this fall. A multi-year extention would seem foolish, as dominant as Uehara has been, given his age, and surely, the shoulder scare which sidelined him for a brief period back in April, would give the Red Sox further pause.

The Sox could conceivably make Uehara a qualifying offer which would make him a tough sell on the open market. Few teams would want to commit much to a soon-to-be 40-year-old reliever when it would also cost them a high draft pick.

For the Sox, the qualifying offer -- which will probably climb past $15 million this winter -- would be an overpay, though one they might consider.

That's a decision the Sox would like to face, though, since keeping Uehara through the end of the season would signify that the team was in the playoff picture.

To contemplate moving him to maximize his value would mean a half-season of playing out the string, a prospect neither the team nor the pitcher would relish.