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Uehara Close to Baltimore Return

In a free agent market rife with relief pitching, Koji Uehara was one of the less frequently discussed names. Yet he put together quite an excellent year, despite having it shortened due to injury. Now he’s nearing a deal that will bring him back to Baltimore to help fortify a bullpen that just lost David Hernandez yesterday.

Uehara, who will turn 36 near the start of the season, pitched the 2009 season with the Orioles as a starter. In terms of rate stats his season could have been termed a success:

ERA: 4.05 (113 ERA+)
FIP: 3.56
xFIP: 4.51
tERA: 3.31

The only problem is that his season ended after his start on June 23. He suffered a flexor tendon strain in his right elbow. This came after he missed 19 days in late May to early June due to a hamstring strain. That left him with just 12 starts and 66.2 innings on the season. At the start of spring training the Orioles decided to move him to the bullpen, but those plans were delayed by a month after he strained his hamstring in spring training. His injury woes continued after just six appearances; he missed 40 days with another elbow issue.

After his late-June return, though, Uehara shined. His strikeout rate skyrocketed to 11.25 per nine. He walked fewer batters, 1.02 per nine, than he did in the 2009 season. Here are those same rate stats, in about two-thirds the number of innings:

ERA: 2.86
FIP: 2.40
xFIP: 2.91
tERA: 2.47

It would appear, then, that Uehara found his niche in the bullpen. He also succeeded when he moved to the bullpen for the Yomiuri Giants in 2007. Acting as the team’s closer he recorded 32 saves and posted a 1.74 ERA (~2.02 FIP) in 62 innings — and he walked just four batters in the process. He’ll surely return to that relief role in 2010, perhaps even return to the closer role that he occupied from about mid-August through season’s end.

If Uehara remains healthy he can join Jim Johnson, and Jason Berken as a solid relieve corps. Mike Gonzalez is also a wild card in that mix. The Orioles have been working to even further improve the bullpen, too, as they’ve reportedly offered Kevin Gregg a two-year contract. Gregg might appear nice from a fantasy baseball perspective, a 3.51 ERA and 37 saves in 2010, but he still suffers from horrible control. That can get him into trouble later in games. It’s unknown how interested Gregg is in pitching for the Orioles, since they have two potential closers, Uehara and Gonzalez, in the fold already.

There is no doubt that Uehara presents a risk for the Orioles. In his short MLB tenure he has already missed 209 days, or the equivalent of somewhere around a full season. It is more concerning, too, that his hamstring and elbow injuries both recurred in 2010. To the Orioles, apparently, the upside outweighs the risk. After all, it is not as though losing Uehara for the season will cost the team a chance at contention.