Last time Tigers fans saw Koji Uehara, he was busy locking down all four games in the 2013 ALCS for the Boston Red Sox. Yes, there were a couple of matchups in 2014 sprinkled in, but the Red Sox faded quickly into oblivion after the Tigers swept them at Fenway Park in mid-May. With a youth movement currently underway in Boston, Uehara doesn't seem to fit into the team's long term plans. Could the Tigers swoop in and pick up the 2013 ALCS MVP?
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
Uehara was one of the oldest rookies in baseball when he made his MLB debut with the Baltimore Orioles in 2009. After 10 seasons in Japan, Uehara made his stateside debut at 34 years old. He struggled somewhat as a starter that year, allowing a 4.05 ERA and 3.56 FIP in 12 starts. He transitioned to the bullpen before the 2010 season, and something clicked. Uehara's strikeout rate nearly doubled from 2009 to 2010 while his walk rate actually declined. He fanned 11 batters for every walk he allowed that season, something he has now accomplished three times in the last five years. He has spent time with the Orioles, Red Sox, and Texas Rangers, and has been highly successful at all stops.
Why should we care?
Koji Uehara has walked 46 batters in an MLB uniform. Six seasons. Three teams. One World Series. Forty-six walks. Justin Verlander walked 46 batters before the All-Star break last season. And Koji Uehara has walked as many guys in his entire career. That's so astounding, it deserved its own paragraph.
To go along with that impeccable command is an uncanny ability to strike hitters out. He has 364 strikeouts in 283 2/3 innings as a reliever in his career, a rate of 11.5 per nine innings. He doesn't have the high octane velocity of most relievers these days -- the hardest fastball he has thrown in his MLB career was only 92 miles per hour -- but his splitter is one of the most devastating pitches in baseball. He gets a whiff over 25 percent of the time he throws the splitter, a feat that becomes even more impressive when you realize that batters know it's coming. Uehara went to the splitter 67 percent of the time in two-strike counts in 2014, and still pulled off a 24 percent whiff rate.
Why should we stay away?
The only question about Uehara at this point is how long he will continue to be effective. He showed no signs of dropping off last season, but he will be 40 years old on Opening Day in 2015. The Tigers will have another 40 year old pitcher on their roster in Joe Nathan, and picking up a second pitcher at that age is concerning. Uehara seems like a safer bet to continue pitching at a high level -- he doesn't rely on his velocity like Nathan used to -- but any decline in his walk or strikeout rates could be devastating.
Given his age, Uehara may only look for a one year deal. Usually, this would be a great thing when looking for a top reliever. However, in Uehara's case, it could work against the Tigers if they are looking to avoid paying the luxury tax. With a one year deal in place, large market teams can throw money at him with abandon without being worried about future payroll ramifications. Because of this, MLB Trade Rumors has predicted a one year, $11 million contract for Uehara.
The fit is perfect -- crappy bullpen, meet awesome reliever -- but the Tigers passed on Uehara two years ago at a much cheaper price, and it's hard to see them going after him this time around. His age is a concern, but he was still awesome in 2014, posting his fourth consecutive season with a SIERA under 2.00. The team may look to plug its bullpen holes with cheaper options since they already have their "closer," and Uehara seems destined to end up in New York or Los Angeles if it comes down to a bidding war.