TORONTO - The Red Sox want him back and it appears Koji Uehara wants to come back. So what’s the right thing to do at a time when Koji is struggling?
The word “tired” has never come out of Uehara's mouth. And I would think it would if that were the case. He’s 39 years old, not some young veteran who can’t admit that he’s tired. In the past when he has been concerned about something as he did when he had soreness in his shoulder earlier this season, he told manager John Farrell he needed time off.
Uehara is at the end of his career. He may play for another year, maybe even stretch it to two, but he’s not going to jeopardize what he has left by not admitting to an injury or fatigue.
But it’s tricky in that, for as much as we all believe Uehara is coming back, until he signs, who knows?
If you judge by the demand for his services at the trade deadline which assistant general manager Mike Hazen said were abundant, those same teams will be bidding for him once he gets free.
The Red Sox discussed a new deal earlier this year, but then tabled it. Hazen believes there has been at least some general dialogue about Uehara's future between general manager Ben Cherington and Uehara's agents, but whether there’s anything firm, remains to be seen.
Uehara has been one of baseball’s huge bargains for the last two seasons, earning a salary of $4.25 million each year. The qualifying offer will soar to more than $15 million.
Will the Sox offer it and have Uehara take it at that very high number? Or will there be a negotiation where Uehara makes an honest wage — $10 million-$12 million with an option year attached?
There’s a lot of strategy involved here.
The Red Sox have to weigh the replacement cost of Uehara. And what they’ve concluded is they’d rather have Uehara then anyone else out there. It’s tough to find closers which is why there are teams even now looking for them. There’s no one currently on the Red Sox staff that could be one immediately anyway though Matt Barnes and Rubby De La Ross are both candidates.
Hazen said Cherington usually begins talking to players and their agents he wants back in September. Hazen thinks Cherington probably has had a preliminary conversation with Uehara on whether he wants to return. Uehara lives in Baltimore with his family, so that could be a consideration, but Uehara seems to be a creature of habit.
He has already moved from Baltimore to Texas to Boston. It could be he doesn’t want to get used to another city, and another way of doing things.
Uehara, who has two losses and two blown saves in his last four outings, has appeared in 59 games which is tied with St. Louis’s Trevor Rosenthal for second among the top 15 relievers in games. He has thrown 60 innings, also tied with Rosenthal. Uehara has thrown 877 pitches which ranks him sixth among those 15.
Uehara is really right in the range of workload for a normal good closer. Rosenthal has thrown 1,092 pitches, for instance, more than any other closer. Uehara is tied with Dodgers closer Kelly Jansen for pitches thrown. He and Rosenthal are second to Baltimore’s Zack Britton in innings with 60 to Britton’s 62⅔.
The economy he exhibited last season has faded somewhat. He has led all closers with 11⅓ innings in August.
The Red Sox simply don’t believe right now that Uehara needs to be shut down.
“I don’t know you have to shut him down but you’re more mindful of it and the volume of workload that he’s had,” Hazen said. “Trying to balance that out with trying to win every game we can. We seem to be in the vise of playing all close games. Hopefully we hit more so he doesn’t have to pitch in every game in that situation. John will have to manage the bullpen keeping those things in mind.”
Hazen said he’s never heard Uehara complain about fatigue.
“He never complains,” Hazen said. “He works harder than anybody we got. After every game he’s in there working out after the game. The guy is a machine. He’s out there throwing everyday. Last year they pitched seven solid months. It takes its toll on these guys. John is going to have to manage it differently than if every game is the seventh game of the World Series.”
At the trade deadline, the Red Sox had plenty of chances to deal him. Even after Uehara went on trade waivers in August there were inquiries, but the Red Sox never heard anything that convinced them to make a deal.
Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves are looking for solutions as to why, as Uehara said, he’s not finishing off his killer split.
“Could be it’s probably arm speed,” Farrell said. “The velocity is still the same on his fastball. It may be just a stretch of a downturn. It doesn’t take away from how good or how effective he can be. But at same time we’re realistic that he’s thrown a lot. We’re not going to apologize for throwing a full month extra last year. Is there some residual effect? Possible. And he’s thrown some high leverage innings for us this year as well.
“We’ve cut back already. We haven’t gotten to the point of shutting him down for the rest of the season. There’s been two days off between each of his last two outings. If there was something physical that was obvious we’d keep his health in the forefront of our thoughts. When he tells us he’s healthy and he feels good we also have to keep that in the forefront as well.”
If he were tired he would tell them. He’s not fighting for his job. He’s not trying to impress anyone. And he’s not trying to hurt himself with the biggest payday of his career looming.
Even a “machine,” as Hazen refers to him, gets out of line sometime.
Until the words “I’m tired” come out of his mouth, and when he says the problem is a malfunctioning splitter, I believe him. No reason not to.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.