TORONTO — The Red Sox traded off Felix Doubront, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Andrew Miller, and Jake Peavy in July, decimating their pitching staff but embarking on the necessary work of rebuilding.
Whether it was necessary to trade Lester makes for a good debate, but the Red Sox chose their path and acted decisively.
But they retained 39-year-old closer Koji Uehara, turning aside opportunities to deal a player who would have been a valuable chip on the trade market. Most contending teams, even those with closers in place, would have had interest in a late-inning reliever like Uehara.
General manager Ben Cherington has since explained the Red Sox value Uehara and would like to retain him for next season.
That’s a reasonable position. Cherington badly stumbled when he acquired closers Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan on the trade market and was fortunate Uehara emerged like he did last season. Why give that up, or risk making another bad trade?
But if the Red Sox intend for Uehara to be their closer in 2015, he should stop pitching now.
Counting the postseason, Uehara has appeared in 145 games over the last two seasons and nearly all of those were high-leverage, high-stress situations. Among major leaguers, only teammate Junichi Tazawa — 11 years younger — has pitched as often.
Uehara has been magnificent, but the burden is starting to show. In his last four outings, he has given up seven runs on 10 hits over 3⅓ innings with one walk and a hit batter. Opponents are 10 for 20 against him with five extra-base hits.
On Monday, John Farrell put Uehara in with the bases loaded, one out, and the Sox leading the Toronto Blue Jays by three runs. He got a ground ball to get the second out as the Sox gave up a run. Then Edwin Encarnacion hit a hanging splitter off the fence in left for a game-tying double. The ball was crushed.
Uehara escaped further damage and the Sox came back to win the game in 10 innings.
Afterward, Farrell said the Sox haven’t considered shutting Uehara down, but wouldn’t rule it out. The pitcher said fatigue wasn’t a factor, but did admit that he wasn’t “finishing” his pitches. That’s pitcher talk for not being able to follow through enough to give your pitches the necessary action or location.
In other words, he’s tired.
Of course he is. Uehara has thrown 148 innings the last two seasons. In the two seasons prior to that, he threw 103⅓. For a reliever, that’s a huge jump.
Uehara has had shoulder issues in the past, with the latest incident coming in April when the Sox were forced to shut him down for a week. Continuing to use him in meaningless games is folly.
Uehara worked an extra month last season. Now give him September off and hope he returns to spring training refreshed and ready to go. The Sox can use Edward Mujica and Heath Hembree as their closers. What’s the worst that could happen — they finish in last place?
Given the way Uehara has been pitching, the Sox could actually benefit in the short term while assessing what Hembree can give them.
The Sox should consider the same, perhaps on a lesser scale, for Tazawa. With 31 games left, he should pitch maybe once or twice a week.
If the idea is to get ready for next season, then embrace it by giving worn-out pitchers some rest. What is the point of wanting to keep Uehara unless you’re going to take care of him?