Don't forget about Edward Mujica
Red Sox know firsthand just how important a talented setup man can prove to be
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In the pecking order of compelling storylines this spring, it can't compete with Bogie-Bradley Jr., the kid pitchers, the leadoff question, new contracts for Jon Lester and David Ortiz, Ryan Dempster's sudden exit, Grady Sizemore's comeback try or Jonny Gomes's smooth chin.
But if there is one thing that should have registered last season, it is that you neglect the arrival of a new Red Sox setup man at your own peril.
That's not to say that Edward Mujica will become the Venezuelan version of Koji Uehara in 2014, even though Mujica, like Uehara, features a split-fingered fastball. But just as Uehara was thrust into a role far more vital than any envisioned when he first arrived with little fanfare last February, Mujica's background suggests that his under-the-radar signing by GM Ben Cherington might have consequences greater than those foreseen in February.[+] EnlargeMichael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty ImagesEdward Mujica joins the Red Sox after saving 37 games for the Cardinals in 2013.
And for roughly the same money with which Cherington signed Uehara last winter, the Red Sox have a closer in waiting should anything befall Uehara, who turns 39 on April 3 and threw 88 innings last season, his heaviest workload since 2008, his last season in Japan. Losing Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey to season-ending injuries last season no doubt persuaded the Sox that having another closer on hand is never a bad thing.
Mujica signed a two-year deal with the Red Sox for $9.5 million, meaning he ranked just 10th, in terms of dollars, among free-agent relievers. Only three of those pitchers -- Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney -- had as many saves as the 37 saves Mujica posted last season, and they all went to teams that promised them they would close.
Mujica, meanwhile, is just 29, 10 years younger than Nathan and 7 years younger than both Rodney and Balfour. That makes him look like a steal, which might well prove to be the case, one that the Sox would not have been able to pull off if Mujica had finished the season the way he pitched in the first five months.
Mujica became the St. Louis Cardinals' closer on April 18, 15 games into the season, after Jason Motte's elbow blew out and Mitchell Boggs failed his tryout. He converted his first 21 save opportunities until finally blowing one on July 4 in L.A. Entering September, he had 35 saves in 37 chances, a 1.72 ERA, and a strikeout/walk ratio of 38-to-2 in 52⅓ innings.
But then came September. Mujica had a muscle issue that was more in his neck, he said, than in his shoulder and had a shot of anti-inflammatory medication. "I also had a groin issue," he said. "That was the big deal. I kept trying to go with it, but it didn't work for me." It didn't work for the Cardinals, either.
Mujica's vital statistics in September: 10 appearances, 7⅓ IP, 18 H, 9 ER, 2 BB, 3 K's, .514 opponent batting average, 11.05 ERA, 2 saves, 2 blown saves.
He lost his closer's job to a young flamethrower named Trevor Rosenthal. He pitched only twice in the postseason and never got off his seat in the Cardinals bullpen during the World Series against the Sox.
Red Sox: Spring Training 2014
As all eyes turn to Fort Myers to watch the Red Sox prepare for the season, we have you covered. Red Sox blog »
That left a hurt still evident when he spoke here this week.
"People have bad outings," he said. "I had mine. I had four blown saves, and they took me out of the closer's role. They didn't say anything. They said they were giving me a couple days off but didn't say anything [more] to me.
"I was ready to go and keep on battling, but they didn't say anything. I tried to take it the best way and that was it. I didn't see any action in the World Series. I don't know what I did, but I think I did something wrong.
"It's part of the game. Here, I think people will treat me better." From the other side, Mujica said he liked what he saw when he watched the Red Sox. He also had a number of ties with the Sox: He was friends with fellow Venezuelans Felix Doubront, Franklin Morales and bullpen catcher Mani Martinez. He was with Cleveland when Sox manager John Farrell was farm director and Sox VP Mike Hazen was in player development. Bench coach Torey Lovullo had managed him in the Indians' minor league system.
"After the Boston Marathon [bombings], that team just got stronger," he said. "What I saw were guys that go out and play hard, guys who had good communication and good friendship with everybody in the clubhouse.
"I knew Felix, I knew Morales, I knew Mani. It's unbelievable how comfortable those guys felt with Boston. We had a pretty good team in St. Louis. In the World Series, I think everybody was tired. But these guys were unbelievable.
"When they made an offer, I told my agent [Wil Polidor of Octagon], 'Keep your eyes on them.'"
And now he is here, ready to be used, by Farrell's reckoning, in high-leverage situations late in the game. Uehara is the undisputed closer; there is no competition for that role in camp. Mujica will be in the next tier of setup men, with Junichi Tazawa and left-handers Andrew Miller and Craig Breslow.
"I don't care," said Mujica, who in parts of seven seasons before St. Louis had served exclusively in a setup role, totaling six saves with the Indians, San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins. "[St. Louis] gave me a chance last year to be closer. I did my job. Everybody has bad outings, even the guys who have been closers for a long time.
"I know we have Koji, Tazawa," he said. "The way they use me, I don't care. The only thing I care about is that people know me and take care of me better than last year."
- Net Benefits
- Loui Eriksson scored in his return as the B's got revenge vs. the Caps.
- Help Him
- What's the Patriots' biggest need on offense? We debate. You decide.
- Ranging Deep At Short
- Deven Marrero is the next SS behind Xander Bogaerts in Boston's talented pipeline.
- Going Down?
- With 21 games left, the Celtics are on course to land in lottery country.
- Commemorative Occasion
- Cam Neely recalls scoring 50 in 44 games in '93-94.
- Soft As A Grape Women's Boston Red Sox Navy V-Neck T-Shirt
MORE MLB HEADLINES