Could a Koji Uehara Acquisition Make Sense for Washington?


Due to his high salary, Koji Uehara has been getting shopped by the Texas Rangers lately, and the Washington Nationals may make the perfect trade partner. Here’s why:

First off, I’ve read in numerous places that Uehara praised the Baltimore Orioles, his former organization, when talking to newly-signed Orioles Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen, which apparently played a factor in both of them signing in Baltimore. So, if the Nationals were to treat Uehara right during his time, it potentially could help us lure an Asian talent or two in the future.  The Nationals have not been very active in international free agency ever since 19-year-old Esmailyn Gonzalez, turned out to really be 23-year-old Carlos Alverez Daniel Lugo. Lugo was signed by former Nationals GM Jim Bowden (who later resigned amongst an investigation into the incident) to a club record $1.4 million bonus. Maybe Uehara will help attract Asian talent, which could encourage the Nationals front office members to also do more in Latin America.

Next, we need a quality strikeout arm out of the pen. Currently, the two middle relievers relied upon for strikeouts are right-handers Henry Rodriguez and Tom Gorzelanny. Both pitchers have the same problem: they can get strikeouts on good days, but on bad days (their more frequent days), they walk batters: a lot of batters.

Out of the two, I like Rodriguez better. His fastball has unlimited potential, he just has to get his control issues worked out first.  However, there are two problems with Rodriguez: 1) There are already several other right-handers in the bullpen and 2) A major league team on the road to playoff contention cannot afford to give its relievers time to discover their potential when the game is on the line. How does Uehara fit into this equation? Quite simply. Uehara is a pitcher who, despite a lower-velocity fastball, has a higher strikeout rate (11.77 K/9 vs. Rodriguez’s 9.59 K/9), and a much more impressive strikeout/walk ratio (9.44 K/BB vs. Rodriguez’s 1.56 K/BB). He will be almost eight times more effective than Rodriguez, which hopefully transfers into one or two more wins for the Nationals.

But, I did say I liked Rodriguez’s potential, and I stand by that statement. Uehara fits right into my Rodriguez Plan, and that is this: lessen H-Rod’s workload, and make him more of a specialist than a full inning guy. Then, he will be able to pitch full innings in 2013 once Uehara’s 1-year, $4.5M contract expires after the season. By then he should be mostly developed, and if not, then he is likely destined for AAA, and can be officially labeled “Just Another Live Arm.”

There is also a fix if Davey Johnson decides that Gorzelanny just doesn’t cut it, and that is trade him. Trade him, and get rid of his $2.4 million salary, his high walk rate, and the risks that Johnson goes senile and spot-starts him one day. Send him to Baltimore, where salaries are somewhat more irrelevant, and a player’s ceiling is all that matters. Let him be their strikeout pitcher, since they don’t have many options to do that past Jim Johnson. Send him to the Astros, who can use anything they can get at this point. Just get rid of him.

Ok, so I may have shown a bit too much emotion there. But, it’s not without reason. Just take a look at how statistically inferior Gorzelanny is to Uehara. His K/9 is more than three worse (8.14 vs. Uehara’s 11.77), and his K/BB is roughly 7.5 less strikeouts per walk (2.88 vs. Uehara’s 9.44). And here’s the sad thing; several analysts (I’ll pick on Bill James in particular here) project Gorzelanny’s walks to go up next year.  According to good ol’ Bill James, you should expect to see about .65 more walks from Gorzelanny per 9 innings in 2012 than you did in 2011. And as for Mr. Uehara? Bill James says he will go down by .01! That’s an improvement!

So let’s be honest here: which guy do you want in your bullpen next year?

Now, Texas is not just giving this guy away. As the numbers you’ve seen have shown, he is a quality reliever. However, the Rangers feel that with quality arms such as Joe Nathan, Mike Adams, and Alexi Ogando in their pen already, they don’t need to spend $4.5 million on a reliever, especially with some of the other financial commitments they have, and will soon have (that’s right Josh Hamilton, I mean you).

What kind of package will it take to land this guy? Well, after taking a large look at the entire Texas Organization, I’ve found that their major league roster couldn’t really benefit from this deal; they’re already too good as it is (Remember? Back-To-Back AL Champions). So, the Nationals need to give Texas some more farm depth if they are to facilitate a move. I propose an offer of Dave Freitas and Rafael Martin for Uehara and his whole salary (i.e. the Rangers don’t need to eat any cash).

After checking out John Sickel’s prospect rankings for Texas, I found only one catcher mentioned on the top 25 prospects list, and he was 15th-best prospect Jorge Alfaro. Alfaro is 18, and has only spent 2 seasons in the minors. So, we probably don’t expect to see him in the bigs any time soon. Not to mention, catcher is typically an injury-prone position. These two reasons combine to have acquiring Freitas make sense. Though Freitas is also only a 2-year vet of the minor leagues, he is 22, and played college ball, so he brings a little more experience. The experience combined with having injury insurance for Alfaro makes the acquisition logical for Texas.

Every trade has a throw-in pitcher right? Well Martin is that guy for this deal.  He will be that guy who produces good numbers in the minors, but doesn’t ever contribute to the major league squad. Last year he posted a 1.77 ERA in 35.2 innings for AA Harrisburg last season, but the catch is that he is going into his age-27 season and still in AA.

The biggest factor in this whole deal might be that the Nationals would absorb the full salary of Uehara’s contract. The Rangers have been long linked to free agent starting pitcher Roy Oswalt, and this deal would free up $4 million for them to put towards acquiring the talented righty. I could spend hours talking about what Oswalt brings to a club, and why it’s worth freeing up money to get him, but since this is about Koji to DC, I’ll leave it at this:

Oswalt’s numbers:

180 or more innings in 7 of the last 8 seasons (139 last year due to injury)

159-93 career record

3.21 career ERA

7.3 K/9 ratio for his career

‘Nuff said.

So, to sum it all up, the Nationals would add to what is already an elite bullpen, and the Rangers add to a solid farm, and give themselves some payroll flexibility to potentially acquire a difference-making starting pitcher. I see nothing wrong with this, do you?