It hasn't even lasted five games, but Koji Uehara's sudden slump has turned heads, and has left Boston's plans at closer going forward in jeopardy.
With the Red Sox clear sellers at the trade deadline, Koji seemed to be one of the more obvious candidates for a trade. The 39-year-old reliever had established himself as arguably the best ninth-inning guarantee in the league since taking over as Boston's closer in the middle of 2013. Holding a 1.48 ERA in 49 innings of work on deadline day, it was assumed that the Red Sox would flip Koji to a contender for a considerable return.
July 31st came and went, however, and Uehara remained on the team. Given Boston's Lester - Lackey - Miller fire sale signaled that the front office knew there was no hope for a miracle run, that left just one explanation for this bizarre turn of events: the Red Sox intended to keep Koji Uehara, even if it meant using the qualifying offer to do so.
It sounds insane that a team would offer around $15 million to a reliever for their age 40 season, but the Red Sox have shown no reluctance to pay players top dollar so long as they can limit the length of their commitment to said players, lest they find themselves burdened with year after year of unproductive eight-figure salaries. With the Red Sox also not exactly butting up against their self-imposed soft cap of the CBT threshold, making a qualifying offer to Uehara to essentially guarantee his services actually made some sense.
These past four games, however, have made that qualifying offer look like a much crazier idea. Uehara has gone from unhittable, to unpitchable. Seven earned runs in 3.1 innings of work on 10 hits and a walk is not the stuff of closers. It's not even the stuff you expect from the last man out of the bullpen in those 15-inning games where you just want to give up a run and be done with it. Uehara has been an absolute disaster for 10 days now, hanging splitters and watching them fly away, taking leads with them.
It's just four games. He could be right again just as quickly as he went wrong, and maybe after September the Red Sox are comfortable extending that qualifying offer and ensuring that Koji Uehara will lock down the ninth for at least one more year. But...Koji is 39, and he's been asked to throw nearly 150 innings since signing with the team before the 2013 season. Honestly, if he falters now, it won't be a surprise that he broke down, but that it took him this long to do so given the heavy workload placed on his shoulders.
With that in mind, it's easy to see the question of what to do with Koji being awfully difficult for Boston come the offseason. Even if he's not this same level of disaster in September, if he doesn't return to his old dominant self in a hurry, can the Red Sox really ignore this red flag on a reliever who will turn 40 on April 3rd and will cost nearly $15 million?
It will look awful if the Red Sox head into the offseason and just let Koji go to free agency after neglecting to trade him in July. It will look even worse if they extend the qualifying offer to a 40-year-old reliever who has shown every sign of declining in the last month. Let's not forget this is the team that traded for Joel Hanrahan after he struggled through the last month of 2012. They've learned this lesson before.
Hopefully Koji pitches like Koji for the last month, we write all this off as your run-of-the-mill slump, and he goes on to save 40 games in 2015 as the Red Sox do the whole "worst to first" thing all over again. Hopefully. But until he's back to making batters look like they belong in little league rather than at home plate in Fenway Park, the front office is going to be sweating and wondering if maybe they got a little too tricky in holding onto their aged star closer with free agency on the horizon.