Koji Uehara, Symbol of Birdland Expectation and Frustration, Set to Return as Middle Reliever

May 05, 2010 |

With all of the Orioles’ disappointments after one month of play, for all of the free agent duds (Mike Gonzalez, Garrett Atkins), sluggish starts (Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones), and lineup-crushing injuries (Brian Roberts, Felix Pie), perhaps no Oriole over the last few years serves as a more fitting symbol of Birdland failure than Koji Uehara.

In fact, Uehara has been such a disappointment, so injury-laden, and so unimpressive in his brief stints on the mound, that it feels like much more than just sixteen months ago that he arrived from Japan to the banks of the Chesapeake amidst much fanfare.

Though he has largely been forgotten both by the fans and the club’s front office, the signing of Uehara was widely praised at the time, since it marked the Orioles’ first foray into the Asian free agent market. By signing Uehara, the O’s became the last AL East team to sign an Asian-born player. This is a step in the right direction, of course, but being excited about the O’s making a well-overdue splash in international free agency is akin to being excited that a 500 pound man lost 100 pounds. He’s made some progress, but there is still much work to be done.

But this isn’t the way the signing was played out locally. In their official press release, the Orioles touted Uehara’s ten years with the Yomiuri Giants, his 56 career complete games, and his Sawamura Awards in 1999 and 2002. You remember those years, right, before myspace, facebook, youtube or gmail?

Check out the Orioles complete Uehara press release here.

http://baltimore.orioles.mlb.com/news/press_releases/press_release.jsp?ymd=20090113&content_id=3741984&vkey=pr_bal&fext=.jsp&c_id=bal

In the end, the Orioles bid against themselves for Uehara’s services. They were the only team willing to bring Koji in as a starter. He had been relegated to relief in his last year in Japan, and other MLB were only willing to sign him to continue his career as a reliever. The Orioles, however, were confident that the 34 year-old Koji could return to prominence as a starter, or at least eat a lot of innings while The Cavalry readied themselves in the minors.

Uehara finished his first season 2-4 in 12 games as a starter in 2009. He earned $5 million in 2009 and logged only 67 innings before going on the DL for most of the year.

On Wednesday, the team optioned Alberto Castillo to AAA to make way for Uehara. This year, there will be fewer Japanese reporters, fewer expectations, and fewer innings for Uehara, who labored in the fifth and sixth inning of nearly all of his 2009 starts. The club is bringing him back as a reliever, the role every other team in the league appears to have known he was best suited. Perhaps he will thrive in relief. Of course, this doesn’t erase the Orioles’ mistake as Uehara’s injuries both this year and last were perhaps foreseeable. Yomiuri didn’t just decide to relegate a once-dominant starter to relief for no reason. One look at Koji sweating out a fifth inning meltdown confirmed what the rest of the league already knew—he wasn’t the pitcher he was in 2002.

On the day that Andy MacPhail finally spoke about the Orioles’ hitting woes, Uehara’s return is a secondary concern. But his signing is beginning to look like a foreshadowing of the perhaps similarly poor Gonzalez and Atkins signings. All three players seem to have been signed with the expectation that they will perform to the highest points of their careers. However, all three players showed signs of a downward trajectory in the last few seasons. Atkins’ numbers had been in a tailspin for three years, in the National League no less, before the Orioles signed him for $4.5 million to play first base. Gonzalez lost his closing job in Atlanta before the Orioles handed him the keys for two years.

When Gonzalez was booed on Opening Day in Baltimore, he became the new symbol of Orioles frustration. Gonzalez struggles have been more immediate and therefore more spectacular than Uehera’s. I mean, at least he wasn’t booed on day one at Oriole Park. But everything about the Koji signing—the hype, the optimistic expectations, the misplaced role he was given, the injuries, the disappointment—is beginning to look all-too-familiar in Birdland. And not just in comparison to Atkins and Gonzalez. Will Brian Roberts, the 32 year-old speed-based player given a $40 million, four-year extension, ever be the real Brian Roberts again? Unlike Koji, BRob won’t have the chance to reinvent himself in middle relief.

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