When the Twins outlined their strategy for the offseason, they focused on two items: solidifying the middle infield and repair the bullpen. Now on the verge of landing Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the former task appears to be completed. Addressing the latter issue, however, may also tie in with the acquisition of Nishioka.
Reports emerged from the winter meetings recently that the Twins have been linked to the Orioles’ free agent closer, 36-year-old Koji Uehara. Uehara, in addition to giving the team a wonderful bullpen arm, would also provide Nishioka a cultural compatriot in the clubhouse that could help ease the transition from Japan to America.
According to 1500ESPN.com’s Phil Mackey, Twins general manager Bill Smith told reporters that neither Nishioka nor his wife speaks any English. While baseball is a universal language between the chalk lines, there can be a substantial barrier on the bench, in the clubhouse and on the road. Without question, this could have an adverse affect on his performance and, ultimately, his career.
Take Hideki Okajima’s story, for example. Okajima, a four-year veteran of the Red Sox, admitted to ESPNBoston.com’s Gordon Edes that he experienced what he described as significant loneliness and isolation. After being one of key pitchers that reliably protected the game in front of closer Jonathon Papelbon for three consecutive years, Okajima suddenly began to struggle this past season. At one point, he allowed 27 hits in 15.2 innings of work. Perhaps his downtrodden 2010 season compounded the problem but through his interpreter, Okajima told Edes that the time spent in the bullpen, without the interpreter in the area due to team regulations, made him feel distant and unconnected. Portrayed as a malcontent by the Boston media, Okajima was non-tendered by the Red Sox this winter.
But acquiring Uehara goes beyond just providing Nishioka a partner to reminisce with about the old country or grab post-game sushi at Orgami. Because of the potential of losing three right-handed middle relievers in Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch, a right-handed replacement that is tough on same-sided opponents would be an ideal solution.
And that’s just what Uehara is. Last season, Uehara was absolutely cold-blooded against right-handers, holding them to a .196 batting average against while posting a 26-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. As good as the Twins trio was none of them had that kind of success against righties.
Despite college-level velocity (his fastball barely gets into the upper 80s), Uehara hits his spots and mixes in a curve, changeup and a nasty split-finger. With underwhelming stuff that bores radar gun enthusiasts, you might think he would be a high-contact pitcher. You would be wrong. According to Fangraphs.com’s contract data, Uehara’s contact rate of 74.1 percent was the fifth-lowest in the American League. Using a deceptive delivery – or what Orioles skipper Buck Showalter called “his presentation” - along with his assortment of pitches that he throws with pin-point accuracy, Uehara misses a ton of bats and rarely gives his opponents a free base. In fact, in 44 innings, he struck out 55 and walked just 5. That 11.25 K/BB ratio was the second-best in the AL (behind Chicago’s Matt Thornton).
When opponents do make contact, the majority of the results end up as fly balls. Actually, his fly ball rate of 58.2 percent was the second-highest in baseball, trailing only Brian Fuentes in this statistic. For a Twins pitcher to have that much elevation, it is a double-edged sword. On one hand, Target Field has one of the most home run-resistant confines in baseball, ensuring that most aerial endeavors remain on the field of play. On the other hand, the Twins also have two of the slowest corner outfielders in the game. If those flies are aimed towards the gaps, there is a strong chance that those can drop in for extra bases.
Because of his injury history, missing most of 2009 and the beginning of 2010 with a forearm strain, the Orioles decided not to offer Uehara arbitration, which would have been a raise above his $5 million salary. Instead, the Orioles have expected to re-sign him at a lower price than what he would receive through the arbitration process. There is some sentiment that the feeling is mutual as Uehara has enjoyed the closer’s job, a position he wouldn’t likely be guaranteed outside of Maryland, and had just recently purchased a home in the Baltimore area. At the same time, he has made it known that he is seeking a two-year deal, which many teams may hesitant to commit to because of the aforementioned injury history.
The Twins essentially have two very good reasons to obtain Uehara, besides being both affordable and effective. First of which is that he would be a solid replacement arm for the bullpen’s departed, possessing a strike-throwing skill set that is highly coveted by management. Secondly, they need someone to act as an ambassador to the organization’s newest investment. If they neglect the opportunity to bring him in, it would seem to be a disappointing miss for the hometown club.