The Orioles are full of young pitching talent at every level of the organization. Chris Tillman has been dominant at Triple-A Norfolk this season with an ERA under three and 75 strike outs in72.2 innings. Brian Matusz is 2-0 with a 0.79 ERA in two starts since being called up to Double-A Bowie. With all of this great young talent developing throughout the organization I am more troubled with the handling of Koji Uehara then I would have been just two years ago.
Coming to the United States from Japan this off-season the Orioles were the only team to guarantee Koji a spot in their starting rotation and I think the reason is clear now. Koji is a pitcher who maxes out between 70-80 pitches, a number that simply isn’t going to cut the mustard as a big league starter. The first time through the lineup Koji is borderline dominant but the second and third time though the lineup he is unable to make adjustments to get hitters out. Koji has pitched seven innings just once this season and that was all the way back on April 19th in a 2-1 loss at Fenway.
In addition to Koji’s lack of stamina is his inability to remain healthy. In less then half a season with the Orioles Koji has injured his hamstring twice; an injury that is most commonly caused by poor muscle strength and overexertion.
I have serious questions about not only Koji’s durability but his physical preparation. Koji has looked exhausted in his outings this season when the temperature rises above 85 and I wonder how he will possibly pitch in mid-August when the temperature and humidity are much higher. In a late May game against the Nationals Koji looked as if he was going to drop dead of heat exhaustion on the mound; he was gasping for air after each pitch. In fact he couldn’t muster enough energy to cover first base on an infield single before being pulled from the game after just three innings due to a hamstring injury.
Now Koji is making his second DL appearance with lingering fatigue in his pitching elbow. I am hesitant to make rash accusations about players but I am seriously beginning to question not only Koji’s ability to be a starting pitcher but his heart. He doesn’t seem to have the competitive fire that you like to see that will lift a player to fight through minor injuries.
With all of these factors thrown into the equation it doesn’t take a baseball genius to see Koji is best suited to be a middle reliever at the big league level. He could be a very serviceable pitcher coming out of the bullpen to bridge the gap between the starters and Jim Johnson as well as contribute in long relief and spot starts.
I think the reason the organization has used “kid gloves” on Koji is threefold and none of them are directly attributed to Koji’s talent on the mound.
First and perhaps most important is the fact that Koji is the first Japanese player the Orioles have signed and they do not want him to be the last. The Orioles can simply not afford for Koji to go back to Japan and bad mouth the organization; this could create a ripple effect that prevents the Orioles from acquiring future players from the very fertile landscape of Japanese baseball.
The second issue is purely speculation, but it may be possible that when the Orioles signed Koji there were stipulations that he must remain in the starting rotation. At the time when the Orioles signed Koji they only had one pitcher, Jeremy Guthrie, who was solidly entrenched in the starting rotation. With that in mind I don’t think it is completely out of the realm of possibility that the Orioles would allow for this type of stipulation in his contract.
The third factor is solely monetary; at five million dollars a season over the next two years Koji would be one of the highest paid middle relievers in baseball. Heath Bell of the Padres is currently tied for the major league lead with 21 saves and is only making $1.255 million this season. Rockies closer and former Rookie of the Year Huston Street is only making $4.5 million this season. So to pay a member of your bullpen who is neither your closer nor setup man is quite frankly fiscally irresponsible.
The thing that scares me the most isn’t Koji on the field but the possibility of stunting the growth of our young pitchers and wasting options on them as Koji jumps on an off the DL. The Orioles have already used one option on David Hernandez and once Koji comes back they will likely have to use a second one. I am all for showing goodwill towards Koji to entice more talented Japanese players to come to Baltimore but not at the detriment of the long term development of the organization and its young pitchers.
The time has come for Dave Trembley and Andy MacPhail to start making some tough decision to further cultivate what is quickly shaping up to be a very exciting young team. The first of these moves may be to move Koji to the bullpen and open up a spot in the rotation for a rookie under the age of thirty-four.