Koji Uehara is back in a Red Sox uniform, and with two years on his contract, will likely end his career in one. After all, with Uehara set to turn 40 come the beginning of the 2015 season, there just can't be that much left in the tank. Not even Mariano Rivera was ageless.
Koji's mortality was something Red Sox fans were made pointedly aware of towards the end of the 2014 season. In six games from August 16 to September 4, Boston's closer allowed 10 runs in the process of recording 14 outs. It was a terrible stretch of pitching made all the more shocking by the fact that this was the first time Uehara had really faltered in his time with the Red Sox. Yes, he had blown saves before, but these were his first persistent struggles. This was the first time that his ability to close was actually in question.
And frankly, we may have overreacted simply because of how far from the norm it was. If an average reliever--perhaps even an average closer--struggles in the way Uehara did for six games, there may be some tugging of collars, but there will be few ready to question if his career is ending, even at 39 years old. But when a pitcher so completely untouchable at their best falters over any stretch of games, it's not surprising that fans assume they are simply broken. 10 runs in under 5 innings just isn't something that happens to Koji Uehara if he's not.
It was an overreaction, but that doesn't mean the problem that spawned it can be ignored. Koji Uehara did struggle mightily down the stretch, and it's something that, in the back of their minds, most Red Sox fans had been dreading for better than a year. After all, when it comes to baseball, 39 is old, and Koji's workload was the sort you'd expect to see heaped on the arm of a 28-year-old just entering his prime. In 2013 he had thrown a career-high 74 innings before the postseason, coming in at 88 after all was said and done in October.
A poor Red Sox team should have meant fewer opportunities in 2014, but still Uehara had 56.2 innings on his arm halfway through August when his struggles began. That's actually more than he had thrown to that point in 2013.
It's not hard to see how we got to this point. When you have a pitcher as good as Koji, it's hard not to turn to that security in the ninth when the game is anywhere close to in question. But that's a habit the Red Sox very much need to break in 2015.
The idea of a "closer" is already well on its way out in baseball. The ninth inning is no longer sacred ground. and the definition of a "save" should no longer be in play when considering relievers for any given inning. I'm not intending to get on the "kill the save" soapbox here, but it's not hard to see where innings could be shaved away for Koji, who pitched 12 innings in games where the Red Sox were winning by at least three runs. And that's even ignoring those performances that were obviously just intended to get him some work.
In 2014, an overworked Koji Uehara only cost the Red Sox a few meaningless games weeks after they'd raised the white flag in July. In 2015, though, if they do plan to contend, that could well cost them the season, be it in September or October. John Farrell will not be without other options. Junichi Tazawa has a 2.94 career ERA as a reliever (and a 2.44 figure against teams not named the Blue Jays). Edward Mujica, while disappointing, showed very real signs of progress in the second half and should likewise be a potential late-inning asset if, indeed, he's not traded away for the 2014-2015 equivalent of Joel Hanrahan, whoever that may be.
Certainly the Red Sox will need some of their various young arms to come through in bullpen roles to fill out that complement and allow Tazawa and Mujica to be used in place of Koji in these close-but-not-too-close games. And certainly no combination of players can hope to match Koji at his best. But if a few games wind up closer than we may have hoped, and if the Red Sox maybe suffer a loss they could have avoided in May or June or July, it will very likely be made up for with a win preserved in August or September, and it will make it that much likelier that they have Koji Uehara at his best when October comes around and those three-run saves start deserving his attention once more.