Updated: See the bottom of the piece.
The Boston Red Sox won the World Series on Wednesday, and on Thursday afternoon, Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported that they were planning to make qualifying offers ($14.1 million over a single season) to impending free agents Mike Napoli and Stephen Drew, ensuring that they will receive draft picks in return if either leaves for another team. The article mentioned that Jacoby Ellsbury would also get an offer, as had been assumed, and that the situation surrounding catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was still unclear. It didn’t mention Koji Uehara at all.
I get it. Uehara is a relief pitcher, after all, and one who will turn 39 the day before the Red Sox reopen Fenway Park in the spring. He signed a paltry $4.25-million, one-year deal this offseason. He’s missed substantial time in three of the past five seasons, with injuries to his elbow, shoulder and hamstring, but hasn’t had Tommy John surgery—which would be oddly reassuring. If the Red Sox were to make him an offer, and were he to accept it, he would become one of the two or three highest-paid relievers in baseball, despite advanced age, a fairly short track record and a spotty health record.
That said, I feel pretty strongly that Uehara should merit that offer, and that even if he takes it, the Red Sox should consider it a bargain. For one thing, age and history be damned, Uehara saw a huge strikeout rate hike in 2013. He’d never fanned so much as 35 percent of opponents before, but the number was a bit over 38 percent last season. That dominance, even if it comes without the sexy velocity or vicious slider that scouts assume equates with sustainability, carries some predictive validity.
His walk rate, believe it or not, has ticked up in each of the past two seasons, but the numbers are so small (he issued eight walks, not counting intentional passes but counting hit batsmen, in 2013, facing 265 batters) that that just doesn’t matter. He’s not Dennis Eckersley; he’s much better than that.
Now, it’s one thing to note that Uehara takes firm command of the strike zone, that his success is not a function of good fortune or defensive help. It would be quite another to assume that, because he’s good at the things knowledgeable baseball people know to be within the pitcher’s control, he’s somehow immune to the extreme fluctuations that happen to relief pitchers, year-to-year, week-to-week. He isn’t. Uehara had one of the most dominant halves in baseball history to close this season, but part of the reason was that he didn’t give up a home run for something like 95 days. Pitchers have different skill levels for homer prevention. That kind of streak exceeds any skill level.
So he had the best season he could possibly have, and $14.1 million is a pretty big bet on him not suddenly having one of the worst he could have. It’s also a big bet on his staying healthy. On the other hand, the Red Sox won the World Series this season, with Uehara, their fourth closer of the year, makling $4.25 million, and Joel Hanrahan, who pitched only very poorly and very briefly before going down for the year, making a bit over $7 million. Sunk costs on short-term deals for relievers aren’t the end of the world, least of all in the developing baseball economy. The median team payroll will surpass $100 million in 2014, a major milestone.
The truth of the matter is that Uehara and the Red Sox probably already have an understanding here. Either he wants to pitch just one more season, in which case the Sox have no incentive to offer him the qualifying deal (since he wouldn’t get that much on a one-year deal on the open market), or he thinks he can pitch a few more seasons, in which case the Sox should make the offer, and Uehara will get a chance to find a permanent home. In that sense, the dilemma resolves itself. Still, it’s interesting, as a case study in the effects of the money that will flood the game over the next few years, to see whether the elite closer on a World Series champion is worth a $14.1-million gamble.
I’m an idiot. I misread the particulars of Uehara’s vesting contract option for 2014. I thought once it vested, Uehara still had the right to forgo it and seek free agency. He does not. My mistake. They all are, around here. Some of the conversation above carries some merit anyway, so I’m leaving the post up. Just know I’m an idiot. Uehara will be back in Boston, for sure.Next post: A Balanced Lineup: Chicago White Sox – November 4
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