The Red Sox don't have many major free agents this winter, not after trading away Jon Lester at the July 31 deadline, but they do have Koji Uehara. The team's closer had an incredible two-year run with the Sox, pitching his way into the stopper role, a World Series victory, and still managed a 2.52 ERA with 10 times as many strikeouts as walks during his "down" 2014. Normally, someone like that would be an automatic re-sign, but Uehara is 39 years old and will be 40 around Opening Day of 2015, and it is possible his best days are behind him.
The Red Sox have three options to mull over during the rest of October. They could let Uehara walk as a free agent and head elsewhere to start penning what is probably the last chapter of his career with a new club. They could re-sign Uehara, and let him likely wrap up his career with Boston. The last of these options might be the most promising, though, as it acts as insurance in case Uehara decides to go elsewhere: the Red Sox could offer their closer the qualifying offer, which will either net the Sox one more year of Koji or a first-round compensation pick if he departs.
The qualifying offer is based on the average of the top 125 contracts in baseball, so it changes every season -- thanks to rising salaries and inflation, it's always trending upward. For this upcoming offseason, the qualifier is $15.3 million according to Sportsnet, a jump of $1.2 million from last winter. That's three times what Koji Uehara earned in 2015, and just $11 million less than what he's earned in his entire career, but it's not likely to be an overpay for the Red Sox should they choose to go that route.
Photo credit: Jared Wickerham
For one, the average annual value on a one-year deal is always going to be lofty for a high-quality player. That's the price of making a one-year deal attractive for a player, even one entering his age-40 season. It would make Uehara the highest-paid reliever in the game on an annual basis, as Jonathan Papelbon is making $12.5 million per season with the Phillies -- that makes sense for a year, however, when you consider that, in a post-Mariano Rivera world, Uehara is the reigning and defending heavyweight reliever of baseball. It's definitely more than any team should want to pay a relief pitcher, but the Red Sox have loads of space under the luxury tax heading into 2015, and it would keep them from having to find a new closer for at least one more season. For a team who is still figuring out which one of their kid pitchers is a starter and which ones belong in the bullpen, pushing that debate aside for one more year could be a very productive decision.
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The qualifying offer also has a secondary use. Uehara will only have a week to accept it or reject it, but the tag will still be on his person through the duration of the offseason and up past the 2015 MLB draft. The Sox don't need Koji to accept the QO, they just need to apply it so that no one else tries to take Uehara away from them. Giving Uehara the qualifier might work as it has for David Ortiz in the past, where Boston mostly did it to buy themselves negotiation time and increase the price for any team attempting to pry away a player the Sox wanted to keep. Submitting Uehara the qualifying offer could end up resulting in something like a two-year, $18 million deal that both gives Koji a raise and the highest annual payouts of his career while also giving the Sox a more navigable AAV figure to work through for luxury tax purposes. Should someone be desperate enough to pay Koji even more than that while also sacrificing their first available draft pick, Boston won't have Uehara, but they will have an additional first-round selection and the budget that comes with it.
Uehara could end up not being worth the salary the qualifier provides, but there's a great chance the Sox will at least break even. A win on free agency tends to cost around $7 million or more these days, and Uehara has been worth around two per year -- with 2013 the exception at almost four -- since 2011. If he has a typical Uehara season, then he paid for himself with his performance. If it turns out the few poor appearances in 2014 that were considered un-Koji-like are now the norm for him, well, at least the Sox only invested in him for the one year. They have the resources to hide an expensive mistake on a short-term deal thanks to a lack of high-end contracts and an influx of pre-arbitration players, and as that room is only going to grow as more money comes off the books, they could also sign Uehara to a two-year deal for a lesser AAV if the opportunity presents itself.
If the Sox plan to bring Uehara back for another year, the qualifying offer seems like the route to take. The bullpen is already going to have enough turnover from year to year, and enough question marks with all the young pitchers who will likely be taking on roles in it, so bringing back one of the best closers on the planet at a price that the Red Sox can afford makes sense when the plan is to contend once again in 2015.