Koji Uehara

Red Sox talking to Koji Uehara; qualifying offer unlikely

October 28, 2014 - 5:59 am

Tick, tock. Free agency looms. The World Series will conclude either on Tuesday night (if the Giants win) or on Wednesday (if the Royals win Game 6 to force a winner-take-all Game 7). Hours after baseball crowns its next champion -- thus formally displacing the Sox from the titlist pedestal -- free agency will commence officially. With it, as of 9 a.m. EDT the day after the World Series, players eligible for the open market can start to engage in informal talks with all 30 baseball teams. Free agency begins with a so-called Quiet Period during which the only formal offers to a free agent can come from the team with which he finished the 2014 season; after five days, the other 29 teams can start discussing contract terms with players. The Red Sox have a handful of free agents-to-be. Most notable among them is closer Koji Uehara. Uehara was amidst a second straight year of brilliance, forging a 1.27 ERA while converting 26 of 28 save opportunities, through August 15 before his season hit a considerable pothole. In the span of six outings, he allowed 10 runs, two more than he allowed in his other 58 appearances of the year. Though he closed out the year with three scoreless appearances in the season's final three weeks, the blip essentially doubled Uehara's ERA from 1.27 to 2.52, the second-worst mark of his career as a full-time reliever. Still, the Sox made little secret of the fact that, despite the fact that he's 39 and suffered some performance slippage, given the evident return of Uehara's stuff in those final few outings, they wanted to bring back the pitcher who was one of the cornerstones of the 2013 championship. The team wants late-inning strike-throwers with swing-and-miss stuff. Uehara clearly, dazzlingly, fits that bill. He is the only pitcher in big league history with four seasons (min. 30 innings) in which he has a strikeout-to-walk rate in excess of 10-to-1; no one else has more than two. His 9.0 strikeouts per walk in his career represent easily the best such ratio in big league history (min. 200 innings); Giants free agent-to-be Sergio Romo is second on the list with 5.5 strikeouts per walk.

"I think we'€™ve been very clear we want to keep Koji with us," manager John Farrell said the day after the season. "I'€™m confident we'€™ll make every effort to do just that. What he went through late in the season we'€™ve been able to determine and see that he went through that  previously when he was with Texas so while every elite pitcher, every pitcher, is going to have some stretches where their performance is less than, we feel that'€™s been the case with Koji and despite the age, he'€™s still a very good performer and a guy we want to anchor the backend of the bullpen with."

According to an industry source, the Red Sox and Uehara have been talking about having the reliever come back for 2015 since the end of the season, with the ongoing talks being taken as a promising sign of the possibility of achieving such an outcome. The Sox appear unlikely to extend the one-year, $15.3 million qualifying offer to Uehara, though there has yet to be a final decision on that subject. (A qualifying offer would mean that the Sox would receive a compensatory draft pick if Uehara signed elsewhere; however, because the need for a signing team to give up a pick likely would chill his market, there's a very good chance Uehara would accept it, thus requiring the Sox to pay more than they'd likely want to invest in a reliever.)

At a time when the Sox feel that they do need to add a back-end presence, there are alternatives should Uehara sign elsewhere. The free-agent market features pitchers such as David Robertson, Rafael Soriano (who, like Uehara, was amidst a strong year before losing his job as Nationals closer in September) and even someone with closer's stuff who has yet to perform in that role such as left-hander Andrew Miller.

But, it appears that the Sox' first choice remains bringing back the pitcher who, save for three weeks late last summer, has been such a striking source of stability in his two years in Boston.

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