The Boston Red Sox, demonstrating confidence that Koji Uehara's late-season woes were an aberration and not a harbinger of imminent decline, signed the 39-year-old closer to a two-year, $18 million deal, the team announced Thursday.
The Red Sox signed Uehara before he became eligible to negotiate with other clubs Tuesday. His deal nearly doubles the two-year, $9.25 million contract he signed with the Red Sox before the 2013 season, before he had been identified as the club's closer. It is $2 million less than last's winter's two-year, $20 million deal the Detroit Tigers gave to free agent Joe Nathan, who is perhaps the closest comparison to Uehara, given that he was 38, a year younger than the Japanese right-hander.
Nathan was coming off an All-Star season with Texas in 2013 in which he saved 43 games and posted a 1.39 ERA, striking out 73 while walking 22. But even though he saved 35 games in 2014, he was a major disappointment for the Tigers; his 4.81 ERA was the second highest of his career, his strikeouts per nine innings ratio (9.84) was the lowest of his carer and his rate of walks per nine (4.5) was a career high.
Uehara, who became the Red Sox's closer in mid-June of 2013 after injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, was spectacular in the role, carrying that performance through a postseason in which he converted all seven of his save opportunities while posting an 0.66 ERA.
"You're really looking at a guy who has been one of the elite relievers in baseball for several years," Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said. "And again, based on our evaluation at the end of the year and what he did, we did not see any reason why that can't continue.''
In 2013, he led all major league relievers (40 innings minimum) in ERA (1.09), opponents' batting average (.130), WHIP (0.57), and strikeout to walk ratio (11.22). His WHIP was the lowest of any pitcher in big league history (40 innings or more).
With only minor slippage, Uehara spent much of 2014 duplicating his historic performance of the year before, converting 26 of his first 28 save opportunities while posting a 1.27 ERA and .182 opponents' batting average while striking out 70 and walking just seven. That all changed starting Aug. 15, when Uehara made the first of seven appearances in which he was roughed up for 10 earned runs in just 5 2/3 innings, giving up four home runs while posting a 15.88 ERA. After giving up two home runs in the bottom of the ninth inning of a walk-off loss to the Yankees on Sept. 4, Uehara asked to be removed from the closer's role.
"We identified some things that led to his brief period of struggles,'' Cherington said, "and he came back and threw well in his last three outings."
Uehara threw three innings over the course of the team's last 22 games, none in a closing situation, which would hardly seem to be enough to declare all was well. But evidently the Sox believed otherwise.
"From a health standpoint, he had a little lower back issue at the end of the year, but that was resolved and wasn't really a concern going forward," Cherington said, making the first mention by any Red Sox official that the pitcher's back had been bothering him.
"Once we were able to get through all that, we were able to look at the entire body of work. Obviously he's been an elite performer out of the bullpen for us for two seasons and a critical part of our bullpen. We're glad to have him back and it's an important first step in our offseason, we believe."
But both Cherington and manager John Farrell, while acknowledging fatigue was a factor, said there were no physical issues that signaled an end to Uehara's usefulness going forward. Both expressed a desire to have him anchor the bullpen in 2015.
"I think we've been very clear that we'd like to keep Koji with us, and I'm confident we'll make every effort to do just that,'' Farrell said the day after the season ended. "What he went through late in the season, we've been able to determine and see that he went through that previously when he was with Texas [in 2011].
"While every elite pitcher, every pitcher, is going to have some stretches where their performance is less than -- we feel that has been the case with Koji -- and despite the age, he's still a very good performer and a guy that we want to anchor the back end of the bullpen with."
Cherington indicated in a media postmortem that the Red Sox probably would look to add other bullpen pieces this winter. One potential free agent who fits the profile of relievers who appeal to the team is Oakland setup man Luke Gregerson, who had a 2.12 ERA in 72 appearances and walked just 1.9 batters per nine innings, though his K's dropped to 7.3 per nine innings.