BOSTON -- Only a handful of closers have recorded 30 or more saves past the age of 40, but the Red Sox signaled their conviction that Koji Uehara was a great candidate to join that group when they signed him to a two-year, $18 million contract extension this past October.
Re-signing Uehara was the first major bit of offseason business conducted by general manager Ben Cherington, an obvious indication of how highly the Sox regard the Japanese right-hander. Uehara threw only three innings over the last 22 games of the season, after hitting the roughest stretch of his two seasons with Boston (he gave up 10 runs, including four home runs, in a span of just six appearances). After his last outing, in which he was beaten by two ninth-inning home runs from the Yankees, he asked to be removed temporarily from the closer's role.
The Sox chalked that up to a temporary glitch and preferred to focus on the performance of a pitcher who allowed just two earned runs in his first 31 appearances, converted his first 15 save opportunities and had a 21-inning scoreless streak in which he held opposing hitters to a .108 average.
"From a health standpoint, he had a little lower-back issue at the end of the year, but that was resolved and wasn't really a concern going forward," Cherington said at the time of Uehara's re-signing. "Once we were able to get through all that, we were able to look at the entire body of work. Obviously, he's been an elite performer out of the bullpen for us for two seasons and a critical part of our bullpen. We're glad to have him back, and it's an important first step in our offseason, we believe."
Mariano Rivera, who saved 44 games at ages 41 and 43, three times saved 30 or more games at age 40 or older. Dennis Eckersley (twice), Trevor Hoffman (twice) and Doug Jones are the others to reach that mark. The statistical evaluators at Baseball Prospectus share the Red Sox's confidence that Uehara will remain a dominant reliever.
The Sox bullpen made a club-record 493 appearances in 2014 and posted a 3.33 ERA, sixth in the AL. They ranked second in the AL in fewest walks allowed, and their strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.1 was second to Oakland in the AL. But as usual, there will be new pieces this season, with the Sox having added right-handers Alexi Ogando, Anthony Varvaro and Zeke Spruill, and lefty Robbie Ross.
Here is how they are ranked by WAR (Wins Above Replacement) by Baseball Prospectus:
Koji Uehara, 1.8
Manager John Farrell indicated this past month that the Sox might have to be more judicious in their use of Uehara, who has pitched 153 2/3 innings (including postseason) over the past two seasons. But Farrell is still bullish on Uehara's ability to be an elite closer. Baseball Prospectus speculates the workload might be held to 60 innings but sees no dropoff in Uehara's peripherals, including a spectacular K/BB ratio of 10-to-1.
Junichi Tazawa, 0.8
The window might have closed on Tazawa's profiling as a future closer, but he remains a highly dependable setup man, at least on this side of the Canadian border (he's been shelled at Rogers Center). He led all Sox pitchers in 2014 with 71 appearances, the same number he made in 2013, and finished with a flourish by holding opposing hitters to one hit in 22 plate appearances his past eight appearances.
Edward Mujica, 0.6
Mujica is likely to draw a good deal of attention from teams looking for bullpen help, especially those who think he is capable of duplicating his 2013 season with St. Louis, when he had 37 saves. His dreadful start with the Sox this past season cost him his job as primary setup man, though he posted a 2.08 ERA over his final 42 appearances and won back some of Farrell's confidence.
Alexi Ogando, 0.4
The converted outfielder was bedeviled by significant arm injuries in each of his past two seasons for Texas. He made three trips to the DL in 2013 with shoulder and biceps injuries, then sprained the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow the past season, when he was limited to 25 innings. The Sox see Ogando as a low-risk investment with a potentially high return.
Anthony Varvaro, 0.2
The Red Sox might have gotten a sleeper in the 30-year-old Varvaro, who had back-to-back good seasons as a right-handed setup man for the Braves but was DFA'd for a roster spot as Atlanta retooled its roster. He had dramatic reverse splits the past season. He held lefties to a .149 average (11-for-74) primarily with the use of his changeup; righties hit .273 against him.
Heath Hembree, 0.2
Hembree, a Pacific Coast League all-star last season before being traded by the Giants to the Sox in the Jake Peavy deal, figures to be part of the team's relief inventory after making six relief appearances for Boston the past season. He closed for Triple-A Fresno and posted 36 saves in 2013 but figures more as a middle/setup man in the majors. He has an option left.
Brandon Workman, -0.1
The Sox likely believe they're better served with Workman as a reliever after giving him 15 starts the past season. BP notes Workman throws considerably harder as a reliever and lacks a solid third pitch to start. The right-handed Texan says his preference is to start, and he'll give the team some rotation depth, but more likely, he'll claim a spot in the pen.
From this group of four, John Farrell likely will choose two left-handers, though it could be one if Varvaro is pegged as a go-to man against lefties. The Sox did not exercise a $4 million option on Breslow but brought him back in hopes he can regain his '13 form. Ross flourished in a relief role in Texas in '13, then stumbled badly when shifted to the rotation. Layne, a six-year minor league free agent, pitched well when called up (0.96 ERA in 30 appearances), while Escobar, who came in the Peavy deal, figures to open the season in Pawtucket.