23 July 2011

2011 Trade Deadline: Koji Uehara

In the off season before the 2009 season, two older Japanese pitchers hit the market.  Both Kenshin Kawakami and Koji Uehara were seen as older (for both 2009 would be their age 34 season) pitchers who were elite talents in Japan, but could have issues in MLB.  The Orioles were in on both pitchers as they needed starting pitching.  They balked at Kenshin's asking price which was rumored to be for a 3 year, 30 MM contract (he wound up signing with the Braves for 3 years and 23 MM) and decided to give Koji a shot with a two year deal at five million per season.  Koji had the more impressive career, but of late his value had been depressed by solely relieving and getting hurt.  Starting turned out to be too much for Koji, but he has settled into a relief role nicely and has been much more accomplished than Kenshin who is now in the minors.

Koji, currently in the first year of an almost assured two year deal and being paid 4 MM each season, is the Orioles' best trading chip in the bullpen.  At 4MM, he is not cheap, but the cost is not exorbitant.  Second, Koji has an ERA under two with a 55/8 split over 44 innings.  Third, he does have closer experience and probably should have been closing for the Orioles this season.  Fourth, if free agent compensation exists in 2012, he will likely earn it as he currently projects as the most valuable relief pitcher in the AL according to the Elias rating projection.  

Case to Keep
The Orioles' bullpen is rather thin.  Kevin Gregg is an average pitcher who gets saves.  He just is not someone you should trust in a save situation.  Jim Johnson, supposedly, is being made into a starting pitcher.  After that, you have nothing of note.  Koji is relatively cheap for a "proven" reliever, signed for another year, and will likely be just as valuable next year if not more so.  He is certainly always a risk to be injured, but if the tradeoff is a marginal B level prospect now vs a marginal B level prospect next year or free agent compensation . . . it makes some sense to delay a deal until the next trade deadline.  Added to this, there sure are a lot of right handed relievers on the market right now.  You will need a team that has blinders on and focus solely on Koji or the team is going to take in something of little value.

Case to Trade
What does one of the worst teams in baseball need with an elite setup man?  Koji currently is that and he is not making the Orioles an exceptionally better team.  Added to this, he has faced a significant injury in each of the past two years, but has been healthy this season.  Mind you that during his entire tenure with the Orioles, he has been an excellent pitcher.  He has a track record and other teams have to recognize that.  With the availability of several right handed relievers, the Orioles may not get a great deal for Koji . . . but I do not think we would see something too far off from what the team received for George Sherrill a couple years ago.  My guess is a low B level prospect and a somewhat low ceiling C level prospect.  Sherrill netted the team a high B level prospect and a low ceiling C level prospect.

Possible Trade Partners and Targets
The following teams were chosen because they are within five games of the playoffs and have received bottom third production from their bullpen.


Detroit Tigers
The Tigers' pitching is a bit of a mess.  They are basically Verlander, Valverde, Albequerque, and Furbush.  Nothing else.  They have been rumored to be heavy into any available starting pitcher, but could also use more depth in the bullpen.  My guess is that you could receive Chance Ruffin who would be the low B pitcher.  He is an advanced relief arm that should replace Koji in the pen next year.  He is unlikely to be as good as Koji, but the team would have six cost controlled years.  The Tigers' system is full of C level guys, so you could simply take your pick.  Adam Wilk might be reasonable.

Texas Rangers
The bullpen consists of a strong closer (Neftali Feliz), a strong left handed setup man (Darren Oliver), and average quality depth.  The team lacks that shutdown 7th or 8th inning guy that Koji could be for them.  I think the Rangers are also smart enough to understand that Koji's performance is relatively cheap, you get a second year, and he is likely to give free agent compensation in return.  I think with big eyes you ask for Tanner Scheppers or Mike Olt.  Scheppers will be a strong arm coming out of the pen and Olt is a fine hitter who should be ready when Mark Reynolds departs.  Both of those will be hard gets.  I imagine Scheppers would be easier to pry.  Falling back on those, you could target a softer target such as Chris Davis or Andrew Clark.  Davis is a masher who kills AAA pitching and also kills MLB pitching if he is able to hit it.  Andrew Clark was a late round pick who is old for his leagues, but is showing good power and discipline.  Clark should be someone the Rangers would be fine being without and may have more usefulness to the Orioles than Davis.

Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies need some more depth in that pen from the right side and Koji would be a solid fit for them.  The team is often thought of as being in it to win it at all times, but Koji's 4MM price tag might be too much.  For him to go there, the team would have to pony up the rest of this year's tab.  That would be for a shade over a million.  In return, they could ask for 1B Jonathan Singleton who is suffering some growing pains in HiA ball this year.  They could also ask for Jared Cosart who is a pitcher with high potential, but some questions as to his long term viability as a starter.  As arms go though, someone like Julio Rodriguez might be more realistic.

The only way I deal Koji is if the team pulls back someone like Jonathan Singleton, Jared Cosart, or Mike Olt.  I would need a high ceiling low minors prospect.  Trading Koji away for depth makes no sense to me.  He fulfills a role in the pen and the team could wait until the situation improves to spin him off to someone who values him more.  The worst case scenario is that Koji turns into a prospect or two through whatever the revised free agent compensation system winds up being. 


Bret said...

Instead of AA or AAA middling prospects I think the O's should go higher risk higher reward. For example with Texas, Barret Loux and Robbie Ross are both having excellent years in A ball but both are 2-3 years away and Loux had major arm issues which affected his draft bonus being nullified. Teams that are a Koji away from winning the WS will be willing to give up some longer term guys with high upside but also some major risk. Anything can happen with young pitching.

But this MacPhail idea that for any pitcher you give up you have to get back immediate pitching is dumb. The team is 3 years away minimum, why worry about getting a current #5 starter when you can get a potential future ace?

Jon Shepherd said...

Loux is a great talent as everyone knew. However, it basically is a situation where you let him throw until his arm falls apart...then hope he heals right. I classify that as middling. But, yes, the team should be directed toward finding a "Chris Tillman" kind of player.