The spring air will be thick with storylines when the Chicago Cubs arrive at Fenway Park for a three-game series that starts on April 28.
Hall of Famer in waiting Theo Epstein will walk the Fenway lawn again and gaze out at all the great young players he acquired. Some of them will be with the Cubs.
A hero’s welcome awaits Jon Lester, the ace who inexplicably got away in 2014 and hasn’t been back since. Even grouchy John Lackey will get a warm hand from Red Sox fans.
Here’s hoping there’s a little something special saved for Koji Uehara, who officially signed with the Cubs on Wednesday.
Uehara spent four years with the Red Sox and was superb. He had 79 saves, averaged 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and over 226 innings issued only 37 unintentional walks.
There have been 201 pitchers in Red Sox history with at least 226 innings with the team. Only Smoky Joe Wood (1.99), Cy Young (2.00), Ernie Shore (2.12), and Dutch Leonard (2.13) had a lower earned run average than Uehara’s 2.19.
The first four had the distinct advantage of pitching for the Sox during the Dead Ball Era.
The Red Sox almost certainly do not win the 2013 World Series without Uehara, who became the closer in June after a series of injuries. He had an 0.41 ERA the rest of the way with saves in 20 of 22 chances.
Once he became closer, Uehara allowed two walks and one home run.
The postseason was more of the same. Uehara went 13⅔ innings and allowed one run while striking out 16 without a walk. In his time in Boston, opponents were 8 of 52 (.154) against Uehara in playoff games.
He was a popular teammate, too. Uehara pushed through a language barrier to become an important component of the clubhouse culture. He also earned plenty of respect that season by appearing in 73 games at the age of 38.
Like many of the prominent players in ’13, Uehara had endorsement opportunities after the World Series. He did commercials for Suntory Beer in Japan and several cases arrived in spring training.
After handing out samples to teammates, Uehara joked with reporters that there was none left for us. But after a game in April, he produced a case and handed it to me once interviews were wrapped up.
“Give it out to the guys,” he said in English.
I started to protest, saying it wasn’t necessary, but Koji waved me off.
“Drink the beer,” he said.
I toted the case upstairs and handed it out. We all enjoyed a Suntory on deadline compliments of the closer.
Uehara was a favorite of the fans, too. It was fun to see him slip through an inning throwing 88 mile-per-hour fastballs or that disappearing splitter. Then David Ortiz would lift him up over his shoulder as everybody went home happy.
It had to end at some point, and at least it was amicable. The Red Sox made Uehara an offer to stay, but he wanted more time to decide and the team instead traded for Tyler Thornburg.
It was the right call. Uehara had long stretches on the disabled list the last two seasons and the quality of his stuff was slipping a little. He needs to be used more sparingly and the National League is perfect for him at this point.
Uehara pitched at a high level, made a lot of friends, and won a championship. There’s a Boston legacy that’s hard to beat and here’s looking forward to the fans giving him another cheer in April.
A few more thoughts and observations on the Sox:
■ With Uehara off to Chicago, it is unlikely the Red Sox will have a Japanese player on the roster when spring training opens. That hasn’t happened since 2006.
Junichi Tazawa reportedly agreed to a two-year, $12 million free agent contract with the Marlins on Thursday night. Tazawa spent nine years in the Sox organization and appeared in 302 games. Counting the playoffs, he pitched in 155 games from 2013-14 and hasn’t been the same since.
Since 2007, the Sox have had at least two Japanese players on their roster, a run that started with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima.
Matsuzaka, by the way, is trying to make a comeback after two injury-filled years. Now 36, he is pitching for Carolina in Puerto Rico’s Roberto Clemente Winter League. Matsuzaka has gone nine innings in two games. You won’t be surprised to learn he has walked eight but allowed only three runs.
■ Eduardo Rodriguez has started playing Winter Ball in Venezuela in preparation for the World Baseball Classic. The plan is for him to throw 15 innings before he reports to spring training.
This is a good thing. Rodriguez has pitched in only two major league spring training games the last two seasons because of injuries. He had shoulder woes in 2015 and a knee injury in ’16. Getting ready earlier could help him.
Rodriguez also could benefit from being around players like Miguel Cabrera, Felix Hernandez, and Sal Perez. Rodriguez can be a little cavalier with his approach at times and early season intensity might serve to light a fire.
The Red Sox are planning to add seats at Fenway Park. The front rail of both dugouts will be extended five feet further into foul territory and two rows of seats will be added behind the plate. So the miniscule foul territory will be even smaller.
■ Here’s a trivia question: Name the only minor league player Dave Dombrowski has acquired since being named president of baseball operations.
It’s Luis Ysla, a lefthanded reliever obtained from the Giants for Alejandro De Aza on Aug. 31, 2015. The 24-year-old is on the 40-man roster after a solid season with Double A Portland. He is pitching in Venezuela this winter.
■ The Sox are not planning to invite extra players to spring training to replace those away at the WBC, John Farrell said. The plan will be to beef up the number of minor leaguers called up to supplement the roster for individual games.
■ Next time you read speculation that Ortiz could return, remember that he agreed to go on the retired list. That means he cannot play for at least 60 days once the season starts.
Ortiz caused a bit of a ruckus by posting an Instagram message that he was considering coming back because the Sox traded for Chris Sale. But he was joking, as he told MLB Network’s Heidi Watney on Tuesday.
■ The market seems to have fallen apart for DH types. Will the Red Sox regret signing Mitch Moreland if Edwin Encarnacion is still sitting there a month from now? Agent Paul Kinzer said back at the GM Meetings in early November that his client was about to pick a team. So much for that.
■ Sale wore No. 49 with the White Sox but did not ask for that number with the Red Sox out of respect for Tim Wakefield. Sale will instead switch to No. 41. He wore that number in college and with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the Cape Cod League.