Koji Uehara has been brilliant at times in his Red Sox career, never more than in his role as a surpassingly great late-innings anchor of a championship run in 2013. But even this year, his return from the disabled list helped to restore order to the Red Sox in the late innings.
Uehara is a free agent this offseason. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Red Sox tried to see if there was a way of retaining him on a one-year deal. That said, this postseason has highlighted the narrowing value of a pitcher like Uehara, at a time when the postseason is toppling long-held conventions about late-innings management.
At a time when Andrew Miller has emerged as Cleveland’s late innings Super Mega Weapon by working in parts of three separate innings, and in which the Dodgers summoned their closer, Kenley Jansen, into a game in the seventh inning, the value of pitchers who can work only in set roles appears diminished.
Relievers are undoubtedly gaining ever-greater value in the game at a time when managers are increasingly reluctant to ask starters to navigate an opposing lineup for a third time. But with the decreased workloads of starters comes a premium on relievers who can deliver more than just three outs in a fixed inning.
“It’s a thing that’s overlooked, but when you don’t have it on your team, you know you don’t have it and you’re always searching for it,” Red Sox bullpen coach Dana LeVangie said of flexible, multi-innings bullpen options.
Uehara pitched in 50 games in 2016. His strikeout rate (12.1 per nine innings) suggested a pitcher who can still be valuable. But that value is circumscribed by the conditions of his usage.
Of the 41-year-old’s 50 appearances, 49 came at the start of the inning with the bases empty. In the one break from that usage pattern, he allowed the only baserunner he inherited in 2016 to score. He never recorded more than three outs in an outing, never worked from the start of one inning into the next, and after making a surprisingly rapid return from a pectoral muscle strain in September, he never pitched in games on consecutive days.
In a way, how the Red Sox decide to proceed with Uehara — how aggressively they pursue his return – will say a lot about how they envision forming their bullpen going forward. Do they want a bullpen of fixed roles, in which Uehara is primarily responsible for the eighth inning and closer Craig Kimbrel for the ninth? Or might they pursue a less-rigid model that more closely approximates the flexible structure of this year’s postseason final four?
Those scenarios don’t represent an either/or. Theoretically, the Sox could re-sign Uehara and add another more versatile option. Or they could re-sign Uehara if they believe that another of their holdovers – from the likeliest-to-return group of Kimbrel, Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, Robbie Ross Jr., and Heath Hembree (who is out of options) – could afford them a wipeout late-innings option in front of Kimbrel.
Kelly has the greatest chance to emerge as a flexible late-innings setup force based on his past as a starter and the hints he offered of his bullpen potential at the end of the year. So could Clay Buchholz, if the Red Sox exercise his option and move him back to the bullpen assuming that they show up in 2017 with five other healthy starters.
But, of course, the Red Sox may want to hedge their bets and try to find at least one more late-innings arm capable of delivering dominance. The team did just that last offseason, envisioning righthander Carson Smith as a flexible option capable of getting critical outs.
“You’re always looking for high-impact guys at the back end of the bullpen. That’s why we got Smith,” Red Sox GM Mike Hazen noted during the ALDS. “The more impact you can have at the back end of your bullpen, the shorter you can make games in the regular season, but more importantly, the shorter you can make games in the postseason because you can play them a lot differently. We’re looking for as high an impact in the back end of the bullpen as you can put together.”
Uehara presents one such avenue, perhaps at a relatively modest cost given that his age and workload restrictions are likely to limit him to a one-year deal for something less than the $9 million he made this past year. But given the impact that a Miller or another multi-innings weapon may have, and the team’s relatively stable positional and rotational outlook for next year, it may be worth the team paying handsomely for an upgrade that can transform their late innings.
“We’re all seeing the value that certain relievers can bring to a team and how much they can put them over the top,” said LeVangie.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.