Ben Cherington had a vision of building a power bullpen when he first became Red Sox general manager after the 2011 season, when one of his first acts was to trade for closer Andrew Bailey even though he had Daniel Bard, who at the time was still considered a closer in waiting.
That blew up when Bailey went down with an injury and Bard lost his way, but Cherington took another crack at it last winter, when he traded for another power closer in Joel Hanrahan and signed free agent Koji Uehara, even though Bailey was back. Uehara proved a season-saver when Bailey and Hanrahan both sustained season-ending injuries, turning in what statistically ranks as one of the most dominant seasons ever as a closer.
Now, Cherington is back at it, coming to terms Thursday with 29-year-old reliever Edward Mujica on a two-year, $9.5 million deal that at first blush looks like a Uehara-like bargain, given Mujica's age, his 37 saves last season for the Cardinals, and the three-year deals given to relievers Javier Lopez and Joe Smith.
Like Uehara, Mujica is a fastball-splitter pitcher with impeccable control -- implausibly enough, even better than Uehara last season, when Mujica walked just five batters in 64 2/3 innings, a major-league best (for relievers) 0.70 walks per nine innings. Uehara was third, with 1.09 walks per nine, while Junichi Tazawa (1.58) was eighth, giving the Sox three of the top strike-throwers in big league bullpens.
Mujica doesn't strike out batters at the same rate as Koji -- his K-per-nine rate dropped to 6.4 this season -- but like Uehara, he was pressed into service as St. Louis closer when incumbent Jason Motte had Tommy John surgery and Mitchell Boggs fared poorly in the role.
By now, we suspect, you're wondering, where was Mujica in the World Series? Answer: He didn't pitch. Mujica came into September with 35 saves and a 1.72 ERA in 50 appearances, walking just two. The season's last month was a nightmare, however, as he gave up 9 earned runs in 7 1/3 innings, allowed an opponents' batting average of .514, and struck out just 3 of the last 38 batters he faced.
He lost his closer's job to rookie phenom Trevor Rosenthal, and the confidence of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who used him just twice in the postseason -- an inning against the Pirates in the NLDS, an inning against the Dodgers in the NLCS in which he gave up a home run to L.A. catcher A.J. Ellis. He never got out of the bullpen against the Red Sox.
Even in that regard, a parallel to Uehara can be seen. The Japanese reliever was shelled in the 2011 AL playoffs while pitching for the Rangers, and was left off the Series roster.
Make no mistake: No one is suggesting Mujica is the second coming of Uehara, but according to a Red Sox source, Boston attributed his late-season drop-off to fatigue issues, and they are highly confident he will bounce back. The right-hander from Venezuela is no stranger to John Farrell, who was the Indians' farm director when Mujica, originally signed by Cleveland, made his way up the Indians' system.
Mujica becomes the second reliever acquired so far this winter by Cherington, who also traded for Brewers' sinker-baller Burke Badenhop, another strike thrower (12 walks in 62 1/3 innings pitched). And with so many relievers still on the market, it's possible Cherington isn't done, even though the Sox appear well set in the pen with their current corps, which includes the return of power lefty Andrew Miller to team with Franklin Morales and Craig Breslow from the left side, and Tazawa, along with a host of aspirants, including Alex Wilson and Brayan Villarreal, who came from Detroit in July's three-way deal that netted Boston Jake Peavy.
But Uehara threw 74 1/3 innings in the regular season, eighth most among AL relievers, and an additional 13 2/3 innings in the playoffs, the total of 88 innings by far his heaviest workload since he came to the U.S. in 2009. Uehara turns 39 on April 3, and it remains to be seen how much he has left. Mujica, in addition to joining the setup mix, gives Farrell another closer alternative, and invites speculation about whether the Sox would even contemplate returning Uehara to the role for which he was initially acquired -- pitching in high-leverage situations, regardless of the inning.
Given Uehara's spectacular success as closer, that would seem extremely unlikely. But the Sox pen has taken some unexpected turns already during Cherington's tenure, so it can't be ruled out.