Last night, Koji Uehara earned his second save, and he may have overtaken Alfredo Simon as the team's main closing option. He's pitching extremely well, but his contract expires after this season. What should the Orioles do with him?
In the 2009 offseason, the O's signed Uehara to a two-year, $10 million deal. The move was noteworthy because 1) he became Baltimore's first Japanese-born player and 2) the O's needed pitching help. He was initially signed to pitch in the starting rotation, and he did a decent enough job in the role. In 66.2 innings last season as a starter, Uehara had a 4.05 ERA while striking out 48 batters and walking just 12. Unfortunately, he injured his right elbow in June and didn't throw another inning after giving up one run in six innings against the Marlins on June 23.
Besides the injury, another concern surfaced: Uehara's stamina. Most of Uehara's starts in his first season ended between five and six innings, and he only threw a full seven innings one time: April 19 against the Red Sox. His pitch count wasn't always necessarily high, but he just got worn down by the heat and/or humidity.
After the season, the O's decided to move Uehara to the bullpen. He didn't get off to the best start; in fact, he didn't make his first appearance until May 6 because of a lingering hamstring injury. Then, after making just six relief appearances in May, Uehara ended up on the 15-day disabled list again with an injured elbow. Finally healthy, Uehara was activated from the disabled list on June 27 and pitched on June 29. He's been lights out ever since, allowing only five earned runs in almost two months.
For the season, Uehara has a 2.00 ERA with 31 strikeouts and only five walks. The biggest jump in his performance has been with strikeouts: his K/9 rate has gone from 6.48 last season to 10.33. He's also been a little unlucky and has a .365 BABIP, which is high and will likely go down. Because of the two DL stints, Uehara has thrown only 27 innings, but he's still been worth 1.0 win above replacement -- third-best out of O's pitchers after Brian Matusz and Jeremy Guthrie.
Uehara also appears to be in better shape and hasn't seemed as fatigued on the mound lately. The O's don't use him much on consecutive days -- the last time he pitched two days in a row was on July 19 and 20 -- so maybe that's a contributing factor. Or maybe he's just healthy and finally in a comfortable routine. Either way, there's no debating that he's been very good this season.
So what should the O's do: re-sign Uehara or let him walk? He turned 35 in April and has battled injuries in both seasons with the O's. But when healthy, he's been valuable: according to FanGraphs, Uehara has been worth $4.1 million already this season and was worth $7.3 million last season even though he made just 12 starts. That's a total of $11.4 million, and there's still time left this season for that amount to grow.
Still, at the time of Uehara's first deal, he was signed to be a starter. He's been great in the bullpen, but it doesn't make much sense for the O's to throw a bunch of cash at a reliever (Michael Gonzalez, anyone?), especially if Uehara asks for a similar contract to his first one. I'd have no problem if the O's decided to bring Uehara back, since he appears to be a legitimate closing option. But they shouldn't overpay for a 35-year-old reliever with occasional injury and endurance issues just because he's been outstanding for a few months.