By Randy Richardson
New Cubs reliever Koji Uehara will celebrate his 42nd birthday a day after the team opens its 2017 season in St. Louis on April 2.
The right-handed pitcher makes Grandpa Rossy, who retired after the 2016 championship season at the age of 39, seem almost like a spring chicken in comparison. He’s older than all three retired-pitcher special front office assistants — Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster and Kerry Wood.
Uehara’s professional baseball career spans 18 years – he played 10 years in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league for the Yomiuri Giants and the last eight in Major League Baseball for the Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox.
Think about it this way: many of Uehara’s new teammates were starting kindergarten when he won Japan’s Rookie of the Year award in 1998, winning 15 consecutive games for the Yomiuri Giants, breaking the all-time rookie record.
The Cubs signed the veteran reliever to a one-year $6 million contract, hoping that he, along with new closer Wade Davis, can help bolster a bullpen that lost closer Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees in free agency.
With Uehara’s signing, the Cubs have pitchers who have recorded the final out in three of the last four World Series. Uehara did it with the Red Sox in 2013 and Davis closed out the 2015 Series with the Royals. Left-hander Mike Montgomery accomplished the feat last November to help the Cubs.
That is just one of Uehara’s many accomplishments in a distinguished pitching career. With his World Series win, Uehara became one of four players in history to have won both a World Series and a World Baseball Classic. Along with helping Japan win the WBC in 2006, Uehara also participated in two Olympics.
Uehara is known as a control pitcher. Through the 2014 season, his career 8.96 strike outs-to-walks ratio was the best in MLB history for a player with at least 100 innings pitched.
Uehara’s 2013 season was one of the most dominant by any relief pitcher in baseball history. His 2013 WHIP of 0.57 in 74.1 innings set the record for a pitcher with 50 or more innings pitched. Uehara finished the regular season with a 1.09 ERA, a 2.08 xFIP, and struck out 38.1% of batters he faced. He was ranked by Fangraphs as the number one reliever of 2013 in Wins Above Replacement.
Age may be finally catching up with Uehara. He was 2-3 with a 3.45 ERA and 63 strikeouts against 11 walks in 47 innings last season.
Beyond the Box Score’s Julien Assouline noted that from 2013 to 2016, Uehara ranked 10th in all of baseball in reliever PWARP (Baseball Prospectus’ pitcher WAR variant) with 5.99, but raised concern about his age. “At 41, he’s obviously past his prime, and last year, Uehara struggled more than normal,” Assouline wrote.
CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney agreed. “Uehara has experience as a closer (93 career saves), in the playoffs (World Series champion with the 2013 Boston Red Sox) and a right-handed look that frustrates left-handed hitters (.183 batting average against),” Mooney wrote. “But the accomplished Japanese pitcher will also turn 42 the day after Opening Day.”
Don’t tell Uehara he’s getting old. Known for his spirited high-fives, Uehara told reporters this spring that he has no plans to retire soon. He told reporters this spring that he wants to play two more years in the majors, which would give him 20 years in big league baseball.
The Cubs just hope that Uehara has at least one more productive year in him, and that he can cap his distinguished career with at least one more championship.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation