BOSTON -- Red Sox closer Koji Uehara hit a wall in mid-August, turns 40 next April, and will become a free agent in about three weeks. How the Sox elect to proceed with Uehara is the biggest question the team faces in the bullpen in 2015.
Here’s the second in our position-by-position breakdown of the club:
Performance this season (rank in AL):
ERA (AL rank): 3.33, 6th
Saves: 36, 11th (tie)
Blown saves: 18, 9th
Save percentage: 67 percent, 9th
WHIP: 1.27, 9th
Strikeouts per 9: 8.21, 7th
Strikeout to walk ratio: 3.07, 2d
Number of relievers used: 18
Relievers by ERA: Drake Britton 7 app, 0.00; Rubby De La Rosa 1 , 0.00; Tommy Layne 30, 0.95; Alex Wilson 18, 1.91; Burke Badenhop 70, 2.29; Andrew Miller 50, 2.34; Koji Uehara 64, 2.52; Brandon Workman 4, 2.84; Junichi Tazawa 71, 2.86; Steven Wright 5, 3.38; Edward Mujica 64, 3.90; Matt Barnes 5, 4.00; Edwin Escobar 2, 4.50; Heath Hembree 6, 4.50; Chris Capuano 28, 4.55; Craig Breslow 60, 5.96; Mike Carp 1, 9.00; Felix Doubront 7, 11.00
Best performance: Andrew Miller. Sox fans who witnessed Miller’s dominance in the AL Division series were not surprised in the least. With command issues behind him, not to mention a demoralizing stretch in which he lost four games in 11 days in May, the left-hander is one of the most imposing relievers in the game.
Biggest disappointment: Craig Breslow. The left-hander, who played such a vital role on the 2013 team, experienced the worst season of his big-league career, making it unlikely the club will exercise its $4 million option to bring him back.
Biggest surprise: Tommy Layne. Nonroster left-hander signed as a minor-league free agent thrust himself into contention as second lefty out of pen next spring.
Summary: The Sox bullpen, which was reinvented on the fly in 2013 after closers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were both lost to season-ending injuries, was in good hands with Koji Uehara until mid-August, a point in the season by which he had converted 26 of 28 save opportunities, struck out 70 and walked 7, held opponents to a .209 batting average, and sported a 1.27 ERA in his first 55 appearances. The same kind of dominance, in other words, he had shown through the postseason in 2013. But Uehara gave up runs in five of his next six outings, a span in which he was charged with three losses and three blown saves, allowed four home runs in just 4 2/3 innings, and finally relinquished the closer’s role after Mark Teixeira and Chase Headley took him deep in a Yankees’ walkoff win on Sept. 4. The Sox used him sparingly the rest of the way, giving Edward Mujica, who had struggled earlier, a chance to close the rest of the way.
With the exception of Craig Breslow, the rest of the Sox bullpen performed at a consistently high level, especially while Andrew Miller was still around and shared the eighth-inning load with Junichi Tazawa.
Outlook for 2015: The Sox have said they want Koji Uehara back, and are expected to re-sign him, but for considerably less than the estimated $15 million qualifying offer. They also have a decision to make on Badenhop, who was a double-play throwing machine and was given higher leverage opportunities as the season went on, and on Breslow, whose $4 million option is not expected to be picked up. The Sox will almost certainly add another left-hander to the mix -- Edwin Escobar, acquired in the Jake Peavy deal, will get a long look -- while any number of Boston’s young starters could be moved to the pen.
Scout’s take: It’s cut and dry that the Red Sox re-sign Koji and bring him back. He was up in the zone at the end of the year, but I still like him; he turned out so much better than I thought he would be. He’s just such a great strike thrower, and I don’t think there was a significant physical issue at the end of the season. But with Koji turning 40, the Red Sox will have to have a safety net. Maybe it’s Mujica, who has done it before, is another guy who throws strikes and is able to change speeds. Tazawa? I like his arm, and you give him a three-run lead in the ninth and he’ll close it out for you. Just don’t know what he would do in a one-run game. But he is a quality bullpen arm in whatever role you put him in, and depending on the maturity and mindset, could one day close for you.
To re-sign Miller, that’s going to probably cost the Red Sox somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million to $10 million a year for three years, and there may be teams that will want him to close. As for Breslow, his stuff was down a mile or two, which affected the sharpness of his cutter and the separation between his fastball and off-speed stuff. I don’t believe he was hurt, but he didn’t rebound from last October and is just one of those guys so typical of the volatility of relievers. The Sox won’t pick up his option for $4 million, but he’ll sign somewhere for a million to a million and a half base, with incentives, and could rebound.
Badenhop is OK, not a real impact guy even though he had a good year. He’s a serviceable long man, but if you sign him for more than $2 million, you’re probably overpaying. The Red Sox have a number of young starters that could be moved into that role next season.