Texas trades for Koji Uehara.
[The next report – on what is now heavily rumored to be a deal coming down right now that will send Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland to San Diego for Mike Adams – will come down later. Wow.]
It wasn’t the biggest trade Jon Daniels has made, and would arguably have a fight on its hands to squeeze into the top 10. But judging by the email response I got after passing along news that Texas had sent Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter to Baltimore yesterday afternoon for reliever Koji Uehara, both in volume and in range of effusive opinion, one might have thought that it belonged up there with Volquez for Hamilton, Smoak for Lee, Danks for McCarthy, or Teixeira for lots of minor leaguers.
A lot of you are upset. I get that.
But if your mind is open to taking a step back for a second, here’s a bit of unsolicited advice:
Be very happy for Chris Davis, and very happy for Tommy Hunter.
Feeling good about this trade, from a baseball standpoint, shouldn’t be very difficult.
Last night, Jon Daniels gave us three reasons that he feels good about it:
1. The Rangers “really, really like” Uehara, and trust him in big spots.
2. Uehara will probably be back with Texas in 2012.
3. The club likes Davis and Hunter, but neither was filling a critical “now” role and the trade didn’t cost any “high-end” prospects.
Let’s look at those one by one.
“We really, really like Uehara.”
When word broke around 4:30 yesterday that Texas had acquired Uehara, Dayn Perry of FanGraphs tweeted: “The best reliever on the market just got traded.”
That’s what seems to be getting lost in all of this, at least for those who refuse to lose grip on the hope that Davis can actualize all that crazy talent in the big leagues, who saw Hunter take the ball in almost every role imaginable and succeed, who like both of those guys on a personality level, and who focus on the fact that Uehara is 36 years old.
This club is trying to win right now. It didn’t matter last year that its closer was 22. And it doesn’t matter that the man now being asked to get the game to him is 36. If you’re Houston and trying to put together a foundation for a few years down the road – like Texas was doing four years ago – you don’t go chase Uehara. But when you’re a team able to say that every game counts, that every match-up matters, Uehera is a guy who unquestionably makes you better.
Would you rather have a 36-year-old who seems to be getting better each year, or a 33-year-old showing signs of decline, especially when the 33-year-old would have cost key prospects to acquire? Uehara is a better pitcher right now than Heath Bell, as Perry and Kevin Goldstein and Keith Law and plenty of others pointed out yesterday, a proven pitcher against American League competition, in baseball’s best division.
That’s not to say I wasn’t interested in seeing Bell here (which remains a possibility). But even without taking the respective costs to get each into consideration, there are reasons to believe Texas got the better pitcher on Saturday.
While Uehara’s upper-80s fastball makes him something other than a “power pitcher,” don’t mistake the connotation. The righthander, who offers a wipeout splitter and a plus change, has struck out 62 batters in 47 innings this year, a rate that’s fourth best among all big league relievers (minimum 40 innings, behind David Robertson, Craig Kimbrel, and Jonathan Papelbon – and fifth best if you count Mariano Rivera, who sits at 39.1 innings). He’s issued only eight walks this year (one was intentional), and his ratio of 7.75 strikeouts for every walk is best among AL relievers, trailing only Giants reliever Sergio Romo and Phillies ace Roy Halladay among all pitchers in baseball.
You know what happened on July 16, 2010? Uehara walked Toronto outfielder Fred Lewis in a six-pitch at-bat.
It was the final walk of the season for Uehara, who threw another 34.1 innings that year, striking out 44 and walking none, an 11-week stretch in which he served as the Orioles’ closer about half the time.
Profiling what the Rangers most needed to add to the bullpen, it was a righthander for the eighth-inning, or more specifically someone to come in and get right-handed hitters out. Uehara has faced 78 right-handed hitters in 2011.
He has walked zero of them.
(After he issued a free pass to only one right-handed batter in 93 matchups in 2010.)
That group of 2011 righties have managed to hit a feeble .171/.169/.316 against Uehara this year (yes, the on-base is lower than the batting average – because of one sacrifice fly). But how does he fare against left-handed hitters?
Better. Their slash, in 96 plate appearances, is .136/.208/.261. And his strikeout rate against each is about the same.
Overall, opponents are hitting .152 against Uehara this year, with an OPS of .477. Sick numbers.
The ERA is 1.72, but of course relievers’ ERA’s don’t tell the whole story (not that anyone’s ERA tells the whole story) because of the lack of accounting for inherited runners, right?
Uehara has inherited 10 runners this season, allowing four to score. The last to cross the plate was on May 10.
Since the last run of any kind that came across on Uehara’s watch (or his ledger), he’s pitched 13 times, spanning 15 innings. In that stretch, he’s scattered five hits and two walks, punching out 23, with an opponents’ slash of .100/.135/.140.
Thinking maybe those 13 games came against inferior competition? The Pirates, Reds (twice), Braves (twice), Red Sox (twice), Indians (three times), Angels, Jays, and Yankees. Every single one of them a contender, other than Toronto.
For that matter, as pointed out by Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, Uehara’s has allowed one 2011 run (on a Kevin Youkilis home run) against the strongest candidates for the AL post-season – the Angels, Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, and Indians. His composite numbers against those five teams: 16 innings, five hits, one run, four walks, 21 strikeouts.
The one potential flaw in his profile is a flyball tendency that has resulted in a fair amount of home runs (18 in 157.2 big league innings) but also generates one of the highest pop-up rates in the game. He’s had four disabled list stints – a left hamstring strain and elbow issue in 2009 and the same two ailments in 2010 – but has been healthy this year. There’s also an apparent issue he claims to have with hot weather, but it’s not as if Baltimore is mild this time of year.
Uehara hasn’t pitched in Arlington this year. In 2010, he pitched twice, allowing an unearned run on two hits and a walk in 1.2 innings, fanning three. He pitched in Rangers Ballpark once in 2009, getting ripped in the second big league appearance of his career. Getting the start on April 13, he yielded seven runs on seven hits and four walks in five innings, striking out three (though he managed to get the win in a 10-9 Orioles victory). Two of the seven hits Uehara permitted left the yard, one off the bat of Michael Young – and the other by Chris Davis.
But Uehara isn’t that guy any more. He’s no longer a starter, not the guy that the Orioles gave two years and $10 million to in January 2009 to be their number two after a career in Japan that included two Eiji Sawamura Awards, the equivalent of the Cy Young. (According to NPB Tracker in December 2008, Texas was considering a three-year proposal to Uehara for at least $10 million.) He’s a lockdown late reliever, more so than Bell has been this year – more so than Neftali Feliz has been, for that matter – and he makes this bullpen, and this team, a better one. He’s deceptive, he locates, he’s a strike-thrower and an out-generator.
“Back in 2012.”
This is obviously a huge factor. The Rangers not only would have had to give up more to get Bell – they would have lost him this winter, getting two draft picks back as compensation. (The likelihood of him re-signing with Texas, even if told the club planned to look at Feliz as a starter in 2012, would seem to be slim.) But Uehara will be here next year, an eighth-inning answer with experience closing games.
Once Uehara appears in 12 more regular season games, a $4 million option for 2012 locks in. He is set to make a base of about $1 million more the rest of this season, and Texas somehow got Baltimore to kick in about $2 million to help cover the reasonable cost of paying him to pitch.
Interestingly, Uehara’s original Orioles contract (2009-10) contained a provision that gave him the right to sidestep the typical arbitration/free agency rules and become a free agent at the conclusion of his deal. That provision was carried over to his current deal, and so he’ll be a free agent after 2012 (despite just four years of service) if not locked up further by Texas at that point.
But this deal is about 2011 and 2012. In a way, Uehara is perhaps the most stable name you can whiteboard when looking at how next year’s bullpen might shape up. And that’s something Bell obviously would not have been.
And another thing about Uehara being here next year, just as his high school classmate Yoshinori Tateyama will be. Uehara wasn’t Yu Darvish’s teammate in the Japanese leagues (like Tateyama was), but they did pitch together for Team Japan in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Having Uehara and Tateyama here won’t help the Rangers land the rights to negotiate with Darvish – if he’s posted by his Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters club at all – but if Texas does put itself in that position, having those pitchers here can’t hurt in the recruitment process.
Davis and Hunter.
There’s no need for me to go too deeply into what Davis and Hunter gave this team. We all know what they contributed. Davis offered unlimited promise and couldn’t put it all together here. Hunter probably overachieved, and certainly gave this team a lot.
But the key is that Davis will be out of options at the end of this season, without a clear role to envision for him here, even if he’d shown some progress after returning to Arlington this month. And Hunter, given this club’s present makeup, wasn’t going to show up in 2011 or go into 2012 as part of the rotation, or in a defined role as a reliever. He was tremendous insurance for any number of roles, and an unquestioned big leaguer, but someone whose departure frankly doesn’t cripple the staff, given how he was being used.
Remember, it was Hunter’s (second straight) spring training injury that led to Alexi Ogando getting a shot in the rotation. Ogando’s success in that role blurred Hunter’s utility. Scott Feldman and Eric Hurley become the next in line if the club needs another starter, though Daniels said yesterday that he wouldn’t be against giving a young pitcher a chance.
Going to Baltimore will be a terrific opportunity for both Davis and Hunter. The Orioles traded Derrek Lee to Pittsburgh last night, paving the way for Davis to play first base every day so that the club has a good handle on what it has going into 2012, when he can no longer be farmed without clearing waivers (which he wouldn’t). Hunter will go right into Baltimore’s rotation, given a chance to establish that he can be a mid-rotation innings-eater on a club that’s still developing as a whole.
I still believe Hunter can be that, and pitch in this league for a long time. And that Davis still has a chance, maybe with less pressure and a different set of expectations, to translate his AAA prowess into an acceptable level of big league productivity. I hope so, at least, for both of them. They were blocked here. Not so in Baltimore.
When I suggested, hypothetically, on June 26 that it might take Davis and Neil Ramirez to get Uehara, and on July 19 (before Davis probably blunted his trade value upon his return to Arlington) that Davis for Uehara was a one-for-one idea, I didn’t imagine it would take both Davis and Hunter to get the Orioles reliever. It’s a good trade for Baltimore, who won’t yet be competitive when Uehara’s current contract expires.
But it’s a very good one for the Rangers, because they got an eighth-inning weapon without parting with anyone from the club’s deep stable of prospects, who are still available now to get another reliever, or starter, whether now or in December or next July. That’s important.
Davis told reporters yesterday that he’s excited about this opportunity but still hopes to get a 2011 World Series ring from the Rangers. Losing Davis and Hunter hurt for a bunch of you, but neither had a core role here in 2011, or a clear one in 2012. Their greatest utility was to help Texas get that ring, and it’s hard for me to find any reason to believe this trade didn’t just make that a much greater likelihood.