I’m not sure if you’ve heard this before, but the Red Sox need to rebuild their bullpen. I know that’s shocking to hear about a team that leaned heavily on the likes of Robbie Ross and Jean Machi over the last month of the season, but it’s true! In all seriousness, it’s arguably the most complicated situation to be figured out during Dave Dombrowski’s first offseason with the organization. There are a lot of different ways they can go, but the front office can’t make any decisions until they decide exactly what role they want to put Koji Uehara into.
To start off with, the veteran reliever is obviously in the plans for 2016. He’ll be in the final year of his two-year, $18 million contract, and him missing the final couple months of 2015 killed any trade value he’d have. It’s hard to imagine they’d get fair value for someone his age, especially with the season-ending injury.
More importantly than that is the fact that Uehara is, in fact, still good at baseball. There was a stretch in June where many worried about whether or not we were seeing the end of the reliever's dominance, but he still ended his season with very good numbers. Specifically, he tossed 40-1/3 innings with a 2.23 ERA, 47 strikeouts and just nine walks, resulting in a 2.44 FIP. In the end, those numbers were good enough to put himself in some solid company. His FIP ranked 17th among all pitchers with at least 40 innings, sandwiched between Trevor Rosenthal and Will Smith. On top of that, he ranked 21st in K%-BB%, between Jose Fernandez and Carlos Carrasco, while he finished 30th in K/BB ratio, between Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka. Those numbers — particularly the last two — aren’t the typical elite stats Uehara typically puts up, but he was still damn good in 2015. All of which is to say: he’s far and away the best reliever in the organization right now, but you already knew that.
For as talented as Uehara is, it’s hard to overlook the fact that he’ll be entering his age-41 season next year. The good news is his season-ending injury last year occurred on a line drive the resulted in a fractured wrist, so it’s not a recurring injury that the team needs to worry about moving forward. The bad news is he has had elbow issues in the past, and as he gets older, it’s obviously more likely creep back up again. It’s because of this, and not his skills, that the Red Sox need to decide how much trust to put in him next year.
The way I see it, Dombrowski and company have two options with Uehara. The first is to put him back into the closer role and try to supplement him with better depth behind him. Assuming they have a rough estimate of how much of their resources (both in terms of money and prospects) they would like to use on the bullpen, this could be the best route to use. Going with this strategy would allow the Red Sox to forgo the cost of acquiring a new closer, allowing them to spread those resources around and use a quantity-over-quality approach.
The downside to this is it could leave them in a big hole again if/when Uehara has to miss more time. For whatever reason, Junichi Tazawa does not succeed in the closer role. Whether it’s mental or a weird aberration, we’ve seen him fail in the ninth inning enough time where it’s hard to see the Red Sox going that route again. To solve this, Dombrowski would likely have to go after one of the free agent set-up men. Luckily for him, there are a number of intriguing options, including Tyler Clippard, Joakim Soria, Shawn Kelley, Darren O’Day and Jim Johnson. Obviously, there is a range of talent levels in that group, and for some like Clippard and Soria, it would depend on their willingness to pitch in the eighth rather than the ninth.
The other option would be to take Uehara out of the closer role and supplement him with a more talented arm. On the one hand, it’s hard to take someone who has been as great as Koji out of the marquee role. On the other hand, this isn’t Jonathan Papelbon they’re dealing with, as Uehara hasn’t been a career-long closer, and doesn’t seem like the personality who would cause problems if this move was made. If they decided on this route, they could once again go after someone like Soria or Clippard, but stick whoever they signed in the ninth inning with Uehara and Tazawa setting them up. However, if they’re going to go with a new closer, they might as well go all out.
Of course, this means trading for Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel, both of whom could definitely be available this winter. It’s true that acquiring either one of these arms would cost at least one significant prospect, and that can be hard to swallow for a reliever. However, if they’re only planning on bringing in one new starter, and that new starter comes in from free agency, that leaves them prospects to deal. If they can acquire one of the two best relievers in the game for a package headlined like someone like Manuel Margot, that’s something they’d have to seriously consider. The game is shifting towards dominant back-ends, and with Chapman/Kimbrel to go along with Uehara and Tazawa, as well as the possibility of someone like Joe Kelly or Matt Barnes emerging, the Red Sox could seriously shorten games. With it looking like they’ll only bring in one new starter, being able to cut games down to six innings would be a huge improvement for this ball club.
Before Dombrowski decides what he wants to do with this bullpen, he needs to decide whether or not Uehra is still his closer. Either direction he goes in can work, and there’s no objectively correct answer. There are plenty of talented relievers available to surround Uehara in setup roles. On the other side of the coin, there are two generational talents theoretically available to put in the ninth inning, giving Boston a potentially lethal one-two punch. He can succeed either way, but Dombrowski needs to choose a path.