Bats: Right – Throws: Right
Born: April 3, 1975 (Age 41)
As the New York Mets continue to scour the market for late inning relievers, one potential target is a right-handed arm that has experience in both closing and setting-up, in 41-year-old Koji Uehara.
The eight-year veteran began his major league career with the Baltimore Orioles in 2009, and was then involved in one of the Orioles’ best trades in franchise history, shipping Uehara to the Texas Rangers for RH Tommy Hunter and a young power first baseman, Chris Davis.
In the winter of 2012, Uehara signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox, where he’s remained ever since, going on to be named the 2013 ALCS MVP and eventual World Series Champions in his first season in Beantown. He even garnered some Cy Young votes that season, coming in seventh with a 5% share.
Uehara has been one of the most dominant relievers in the game, particularly between 2012-15. During that stretch, Uehara was sixth among relievers in fWAR (6.4), sixth in ERA (1.84), sixth in average against (.171), fifth in LOB% (86.2%), and led all relievers in WHIP (0.75) and BB/9 (1.21). Uehara has found great success relying mainly on three pitches, a four-seam fastball, cutter, and split-fingered fastball, according to Brooks Baseball.
For his career, Uehara has predominantly been a fly ball pitcher, averaging 52.3% in his eight-year career. His ground ball percentage peaked in 2013, where he registered a career high of 40.4%, only to see that number decrease down to 21.4% this past season.
His splits have been strong against both right and left-handed hitters, holding right-handed hitters to a .208/.237/.366 line, and lefties to an even better .183/.220/.335 stat line. In 2016, however, his splits were more pronounced, as he continued to dominate lefties (.478 OPS against), but right-handers teed off on Uehara, posting a .505 SLG and .812 OPS, both career worsts.
Despite his age (he turns 42 when the season opens in ’17), Uehara’s peripherals continue to impress. He posted a 10.49 SO/9 in 2015, the lowest it’s been since his rookie season in 2009, but bounced back in ’16 with a 12.06 SO/9, the highest it’s been since 2013. He also posted his seventh straight season of a sub 1.00 WHIP, posting a 0.96 WHIP in ’16.
Acting as the setup man for Craig Kimbrel, Uehara had 18 holds, and did step back into his old familiar role of closer when Kimbrel was placed on the DL due to a left knee medial meniscus tear in early July. Uehara stepped up in his absence, posting a 2.70 ERA in July in eight games, with a perfect four-out-of-four in saves, and holding opponents to a .231 average.
Injuries have taken a toll on Uehara since 2015, where he dealt with a strained left hamstring, a non-displaced distal radius fracture in his right wrist, and a right pectoral strain. In total, Uehara only appeared in 43 and 50 games respectively, being only a few years removed from appearing in 65, 73, and 64 in 2011, ’13, and ’14. His HR/9 numbers also shot up in ’16, jumping from 0.67 in ’15 to 1.53 in ’16. He also registered his highest BB/9 this year at 2.11, the first time in his career where he had back-to-back seasons of over 2.00 BB/9 (2.01 in 2015).
Uehara’s ERA was also a career high in ’16, posting a 3.45 ERA, the last time he posted an ERA above that was his rookie season in Baltimore (4.05 ERA).
Uehara won’t draw the same attention that the elite relievers on the market will, and may not even draw the same attention the second tier pitchers will (Boone Logan, Fernando Salas, etc.). There are plenty of teams looking for back end help in the bullpen, and Uehara fits that description with his experience closing and setting up. His age shouldn’t give teams pause, however, a few of his declining numbers might. Look for Uehara to get one or two-year offers, in the $3-6 million annual range. Expect the Mets, Twins, Padres, Cubs, Mariners, Yankees, White Sox, and Red Sox to show interest.
Sandy Alderson should be looking into many free agent arms to help for 2017, especially since Jeurys Familia is likely to be suspended in the beginning of the season due to his legal battle with domestic violence. The Mets should be looking at relievers that have experience closing, like Uehara does, so that he can be used as an option for the ninth, but also is comfortable appearing in the seventh and eighth innings as well.
Uehara should not be considered a big free agent signing, but as a supplement to whoever else Alderson brings in for bullpen help, along with Addison Reed who will likely handle the closing duties until Famila returns from suspension.
While the days of appearing in 60 plus games are likely over for free agent reliever, he still has stuff left in the tank and could prove a very useful piece late in games, and also in postseason play, where he has multiple year experience and with great success, posting a 0.833 WHIP and 10.5 SO/9 in 19 games.