With the additions of closer Craig Kimbrel and setup man Carson Smith to the Red Sox bullpen this past offseason, Koji Uehara has become somewhat of a forgotten man. But he shouldn’t be.
Some fans would like to discount what Uehara will be able to contribute to the 2016 team for a couple of reasons. First, because of his age. Uehara will turn 41 on April 3, but we’ll get into that in a minute. The other reason being his recent injury history. Now, if you want to point to Uehara seemingly falling apart and losing his closer’s spot in 2014, allowing 9 earned runs in 3.2 innings with opponents hitting .522 with a 1.629 OPS over five appearances that spanned from August into September, that’s more than fair.
But you should also give him credit for how he rebounded in 2015. Uehara appeared in 43 games last year for the Red Sox, notching 25 saves and striking out 47 batters in 40.1 innings with a 2.23 ERA and 2.44 FIP. Sure, it was an injury that ended his season, but it was a contact injury that did it, as the right-hander took a line drive off the wrist that fractured a bone. And he was still badass enough to make the throw to first anyway.
Injuries are a concern with any player who’s over the age of 40, and that’s why the Red Sox felt compelled to go out and add some power arms to the backend of the bullpen. But does his age mean that he’ll no longer be effective? Not necessarily.
In recent years — and I understand we’re comparing him to all-time greats, but he has had some all-time great seasons as a reliever — we’ve seen 41-year-old relievers have great success. As recently as 2011, a 41-year-old Mariano Rivera saved 44 games and struck out 60 batters in 61.1 innings with a 1.91 ERA. Trevor Hoffman owns the lowest ERA for a 41-year-old relief pitcher, posting a 1.83 ERA in 2009. But it’s not just Hall of Fame-type pitchers who can have successful seasons at this age. Darren Oliver in 2012 for the Toronto Blue Jays had a 2.06 ERA and struck out 52 batters in 56.2 innings.
Can Uehara have a season that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from him at the age of 41? Simply put, he absolutely can. It’s cliche to say this, but it’s true — it all comes down to his health. If he’s healthy, and especially with the additions of Kimbrel and Smith to lessen his workload, there’s no reason to believe that Uehara won’t rank somewhere in the top of the greatest seasons for a 41-year-old relief pitcher.
Uehara is in the final year of a two-year, $18 million extension. And while he’s not known to be driven by money by any means, I’m sure there will be some extra motivation for him to perform with free agency looming, especially if his plans are to pitch beyond 2016.