Koji Uehara was the gift that fell from the sky in 2013 and now the Red Sox wonder if he’s the gift that will keep on giving.
Uehara is the strike-throwing machine — the fourth closer Boston used in 2013 — and once he assumed the role on June 26 he was one of the more dependable pitchers in all of baseball. He heads a strong Red Sox bullpen that has been enhanced with former Cardinals closer Edward Mujica, strike-throwing righthander, and former Brewer Burke Badenhop, another strike-thrower who adds depth.
Uehara remains the focal point, and with good reason. He pitched more innings — 88 all together — than he has since he entered the majors in 2009 as an Orioles starter.
Uehara, 38, was 4-1 with a 1.09 ERA and a 0.565 WHIP in the regular season. Remember the concerns the Red Sox had when they signed him? There was talk of having to manage his innings. That never became an issue.
Will there be a price to be paid for that extra useage?
If there is, the Sox believe they have themselves covered with Mujica, who saved 37 games for the Cardinals last season before he fatigued in August and lost his job to Trevor Rosenthal. The Sox think Mujica will return in full force and be one of their main set-up men with Junichi Tazawa.
The Sox are definitely stressing strike-throwing relievers after the Uehara experience. They will bring back Craig Breslow (67 total innings) from the left side, keeping their 2013 big three of Uehara, Tazawa (75⅔ innings), and Breslow intact.
Mujica, who allowed only four unintentional walks in 64⅔ innings, will be joined by returning lefty Andrew Miller, who was effective prior to suffering a Lisfranc injury in his left foot July 6 that required season-ending surgery.
The Sox also have 25-year-old Brandon Workman, who could find his way into the rotation and will be stretched out as a starter in spring training. Workman was also an effective piece of the bullpen.
The Sox also have young relievers Alex Wilson, whose season was cut short by a thumb injury, and Drake Britton, another converted starter who pitched some strong innings as a lefty specialist down the stretch. Britton may also be considered a starter, but he may have to cut his teeth as a reliever.
The Sox may also give hard-throwing righty Rubby De La Rosa a chance to win a bullpen spot, though the organization remains torn on whether he should start or relieve. If the Sox carry a sixth starter, he also will work out of the bullpen some. Right now that’s Ryan Dempster’s role.
The Sox used 20 relievers last season. That’s called depth. Because of it, the Sox were able to deal Franklin Morales to the Rockies last week for utility infielder Jonathan Herrera. Morales didn’t fall into the strike-thrower category and with Miller returning and Britton on the horizon, he became expendable.
The Red Sox may not be done adding to their bullpen. They may consider another righty reliever — such as Jesse Crain — whom they had interest in at the trading deadline last season before he got hurt. The Rays traded with the White Sox for the injured reliever, who was named to the All-Star team despite being on the DL with shoulder issues, but he never pitched for them. Now he’s a free agent and several teams have inquired.
Bullpens are constantly changing and reinventing themselves. The Sox made a major deal with Pittsburgh to acquire Joel Hanrahan last offseason. He had been one of the best closers in the National League but he underwent Tommy John surgery and was quickly lost for the season after 7⅓ innings.
Hanrahan had replaced the oft-injured Andrew Bailey, who missed most of 2012 and never really got to be Boston’s closer for very long. Bailey hurt his shoulder, and like Hanrahan, has also become a free agent. Neither will be ready to start the season and are probably looking at returning in May or June.
Most teams would not have been able to thrive after losing two closers. But the Sox had the foresight to sign Uehara and it paid off.