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Some thoughts on former Orioles RHP Koji Uehara and his role as Boston Red Sox closer

The 2013 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals starts at Fenway Park tonight, and I’m sure some Orioles fans are a bit torn.

The Red Sox are a division rival. And, if you're an Orioles fan, you’ve probably built up a dislike for that team in New England, especially since it started winning titles again after a hiatus of eight-plus decades.

But if the Red Sox end up winning the Series, chances are the title-clinching game will be a close one, since most of the games this postseason have been tight, low-scoring affairs.

And if they're clinging to a tenuous lead in the ninth, you can expect closer Koji Uehara to be on the mound, hoping to slam the door and celebrate a championship.

That would be a dilemma for Orioles fans: to root for or not to root for Koji?

The Orioles signed Uehara in January 2009 to a two-year, $10 million deal. It was big news at the time; Uehara had starred for years with the Yomiuri Giants -- the New York Yankees of Japan’s Central League -- and would be making his major league debut at age 34.

He also was the first Japanese-born player in franchise history, and his signing was supposed to jump-start the organization’s commitment to its international program. The Orioles have since signed pitchers Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen (who is Taiwanese) out of Japan and are doing more internationally. But, in retrospect, I wouldn’t exactly say the signing of Uehara created a Japanese pipeline to the Orioles.

Still, it was a good, no-risk decision. Uehara was extremely popular within the clubhouse and with the team’s fans. He was a pretty good pitcher, too, but one who just couldn’t stay healthy and last deep into games as a starter. He made just 12 starts in 2009, going 2-4 with a 4.05 ERA. He was moved to the bullpen in 2010, posted a 2.86 ERA and had 13 saves in 43 games. He could have been a free agent after that season, but he and his young family loved Baltimore, so he signed a one-year, $3 million deal with a vesting option for 2012.

Again, he thrived when healthy in the bullpen, posting a 1.72 ERA in 43 games as a setup man before he was shipped to the Texas Rangers in July 2011. He cried in front of reporters in his exit interview after the trade. He cared that much about his time in Baltimore.

That move, of course, was a huge boon for the Orioles, netting them first baseman Chris Davis and reliever Tommy Hunter -- two building blocks for their future.

Uehara had a rough second half with the Rangers in 2011, but his option had vested, so he stayed in Texas and rebounded with a 1.75 ERA in 37 games in 2012. Again, though, he was limited by injuries.

Last winter, Uehara was a free agent again. He told people he wanted to come back to Baltimore, and the Orioles were interested. They already had a good bullpen, but Uehara would further solidify things. It seemed like a perfect match -- his family was living in Baltimore at the time -- and I’m sure some Orioles fans are, in hindsight, bitter it didn’t happen.

But it’s tough to blame either side. 

Uehara’s 2011 option had been for $4 million, and it was safe to assume that the going rate for a soon-to-be 38-year-old reliever with an injury history would be in the $2 million to $3 million range. The Orioles would have been comfortable with that.

But the Red Sox, flush with cash last offseason after their 2012 fire sale, blew everyone else out of the water. Uehara signed a one-year deal worth $4.25 million, which would turn into a guaranteed two-year, $8.5 million deal if he pitched 55 games in 2013. He had done that just once, in 2011, since coming over from Japan.

I talked to a few people, including some in the Orioles organization, after Uehara signed with Boston, and they were stunned by what he got. Yes, he was good, but given his injury history, it seemed like a classic overpay by a Boston franchise scurrying to get back to respectability.

Of course, the Red Sox look like geniuses now. Uehara went 4-1 with a 1.09 ERA and 21 saves in 73 games in Boston. He has allowed just one run in eight postseason games and was named the American League Championship Series' Most Valuable Player after six scoreless innings against the Detroit Tigers.

His vesting option has kicked in for 2014, and he picked up an additional $750,000 in games-finished incentives this season. That means the contract he signed last December has been worth $9.25 million over two years, or $750,000 less than what the Orioles originally signed him for in 2009 and also less than his second deal would have been worth with all of the bonuses.

Uehara will be 39 in April, but he now looks like a bargain at $4.25 million in 2014. (In comparison, Orioles closer Jim Johnson will make twice that next year).

Still, there's no reason to play the blame game. The Red Sox had the money, rolled the dice, and it came out great for them and for a good guy like Koji.

Now Uehara is a key to Boston’s championship hopes, and could very well be on the mound if those hopes are realized.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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