Searching for this year's Koji

Elsa

Is there someone in the bullpen capable of bursting onto the scene in a way that could even resemble what Koji Uehara did in 2013?

The 2013 Red Sox were full of surprises. There's really no way a team can go from winning 69 games to winning the World Series without at least a few unexpected performances. The Red Sox got surprising contributions from guys like Shane Victorino, John Lackey, and Daniel Nava. Over all of those guys, though, the most extreme surprise had to be Koji Uehara, who not only excelled in a closer role that he was never supposed to hold down, but he also put together one of the best seasons a reliever has ever had. Uehara being an effective pitcher wasn't in and of itself surprising if you've paid attention to the rest of his career. He's always put up very good numbers. But this was the first time he did it as a contender's closer, and of course, he excelled to a degree that no one could have ever imagined. Heading into 2014, there's no question who the closer will be. However, people said the same thing last year about Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey. You never know how healthy guys will be over a full season, especially 39 year olds coming off a career-high in innings. So, should the worst happen, who could be this year's Koji? Which seemingly minor presence has the potential to thrive when thrown into the spotlight?

Edward Mujica

Mujica is the obvious choice, though he may not really qualify because he has the 9th-inning experience that Koji lacked before last season. However, he was also a low-key free agent signing, and it seems like he hasn't really been a big focal point of this offseason among fans. The most encouraging parts of Mujica's game are his control and his consistency. Of course, these are two of the things that make Uehara great. The former Cardinals closer reinvented himself over the past three years, opting for more ground balls and less home runs despite a correlating dropoff in strikeouts. It has worked, though, as he's been remarkably consistent in the past three seasons, posting ERA+'s of 132, 132 and 131, respectively. The lack of strikeouts is less painful to someone like Mujica, too, because of his very good control. In his career, he has walked just 3.8 percent of opposing batters (league-average is around eight percent), a rate that has stayed entirely consistent over the last three years despite his change in approach. If something happens to Uehara, Mujica is likely next in line. And he has all the qualities to go on a great run.

Burke Badenhop

Admittedly, Badenhop is probably the least likely man to take a Koji-like leap of anyone on this list. It's important to remember that in 2013, Uehara was behind Hanrahan, Bailey and Junichi Tazawa on the closer depth chart to start the year. Stranger things have happened. Badenhop is the very definition of an underappreciated acquisition, as he cost very little via trade, and has a track record of tremendous consistency. He won't wow anybody with his stuff, with just a shade over six strikeouts per nine innings the last two years, but he keeps the ball low and in the zone. Since there are so many guys ahead of him on the depth chart to start the year, Badenhop would probably need a few months of productivity before being handed a high-leverage job. After that, he's the type of pitcher who will grow on you the more he comes in, and he has the tools to put together a career-year out of nowhere if the team called on him to do so.

Photo Courtesy of Elsa

Junichi Tazawa

One could make the case that Tazawa was Koji before Koji, just without the competitive team or the closer role. The now-27 year old was one of the very few bright spots of the 2012 season, but he burst onto the scene in a big way. After looking like he'd likely be a AAAA starting pitcher, he came up midway through that awful season and dominated, putting up a 1.43 ERA (296 ERA+!) and a 45/5 K/BB ratio in 44 innings. He allowed a bit more hard contact in 2013, which caused some regression in his run prevention numbers, but his K/BB ratio remained superb. Of course, that's also Uehara's bread and butter - and Mujica's for that matter. For Tazawa, limiting those extra base hits are crucial. If he can allow contact more similarly to how he did two years ago, he would have to be the odds-on favorite to have a Koji-like breakout, given his strikeout stuff and impressive control.

Rubby De La Rosa

The 2014 season is a truly pivotal one for De La Rosa's career. He's always had the stuff to excel as a big-league pitcher, probably as a starter. Unfortunately, Tommy John surgery in 2011 derailed his quick progression through the minors. Last season was his first full season back from the injury, and while he showed flashes, the command was never really there and he ultimately struggled throughout the year. Now, with the team loaded with starting pitching prospects in the high-minors, there's a decent chance De La Rosa winds up in the bullpen, where his stuff-to-command ratio will probably play better. By all accounts, he is healthier coming into this season than he was last season, and he has spent the winter working out with some dude named Pedro Martinez. It's tough to put very high expectations on De La Rosa's shoulders this year due to his lack of MLB experience. However, he does have the stuff and the pedigree to earn his way onto the roster, and eventually serve a very important role in the bullpen.

The Red Sox have what looks like it should be a stacked bullpen coming into 2014, headed by Koji Uehara. If something happens to their closer, they have a few other low-key guys who could burst onto the scene and truly make a name for themselves. If I had to rank the four pitchers mentioned above from most likely to least likely to pull a Koji, it'd go Tazawa, Mujica, De La Rosa, and Badenhop.

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