It’s inevitable. At some point, Ben Cherington will lose Koji Uehara. Now, whether that’s due to lowballing him by a few million dollars this offseason, in a trade at next year’s deadline, or retirement remains to be seen. But the fact of the matter is, soon he’ll be gone.
Now, Uehara wasn’t QUITE the incredible closer he was last year. In 2013 it felt like John Farrell went through about 50 back-end options before ‘settling’ for the then-38-year-old. Uehara pitched himself to a 379 ERA+, which is apparently pretty good, and garnered handfuls of both Cy Young and MVP award votes. Obviously, relief pitchers ERA+ have to be taken with a grain of salt due to the volatile nature of their work, but heck that’s still pretty good.
This year, after Cherington decided not to sell high on his closer, Uehara posted a 154 ERA+ and grabbed his first All-Star nod despite surrendering nearly twice as many hits in in 10 fewer innings in 2014. I’m hesitant to call it decline, in fact it’s probably more like regression to the mean, but it still presents a significant drop off from his historic 2013 season. Uehara’s home runs totals also doubled, likely a result of some batters adjusting to a closer with an 89 mph fastball despite having an absolute monster of a sinker.
My point is, Uehara wasn’t as good this year as he was last season. And chances are, he could see another drop off in 2015, assuming he continues to play in the major leagues. Whether that comes with the Red Sox or not is up toe Cherington and Uehara’s agent. Either way, Boston must prepare for the eventuality that Uehara will not be with the team in the same dominant capacity in the years to come.
Obviously, if that happens in the next year, it’s likely that Boston could turn to some combination of Junichi Tazawa and Edward Mujica to handle shut down duties in the eighth and ninth innings. However, Tazawa is better fit to bridge the gap to the closer, and Mujica is poised to be a free agent after 2015 and had decidedly mixed results in 2014.
I think that the free agent market is pretty thin for the type of back-end help the Red Sox would be looking for as David Robertson is probably well out of their price range and Andrew Miller, who could probably close, may be as well. Personally, I’m not wild about any of the other candidates but Boston Brass may feel differently.
That said, the next closer must be found internally and I believed there are a number of promising options. The only ‘true’ reliever I’m thinking of is Heath Hembree. Hembree, who came over in the deal for Jake Peavy, has always been touted as a future closer with strong fastball/slider combination. Hembree’s success will largely depend on his ability to continue to miss bats at the major league level as he racked up 11.3 K/9 in his career.
The other two candidates are starters who the Red Sox would essentially have to give up on and move the the bullpen full time. Rubby De La Rosa has always been viewed as a potential top of the rotation kind of guy but that potential will never be fulfilled if he can’t develop a strong third pitch. While he dabbled with as many as five pitches this season, he’ll need to find a consistent third offering to find success as a starter. His fastball and changeup would be huge coming out of the bullpen, but a move to relief would force Boston to abandon the progress he made as a starter this season.
Brandon Workman is the other potential in-house candidate that could be a likely possibility. Workman was lights out in the 2013 postseason, but struggled in his audition as a full-time starter this year. It may be beneficial for both Boston and Workman to move him to the bullpen where he could add a tick to his fastball and let that Texas-fireballer mentality take over.
Of course, the Sox may let Koji walk and sign a guy like Sergio Romo, who lost the closer’s role in San Francisco and could be a good reclamation project. I’m not sure that makes much sense though, given the glut of internal options the Red Sox have. All signs point to Hembree inheriting the mantle when Uehara leaves, but if any of the Sox’ young starters fail to get it together, a move to the bullpen could be in store.