Right fielder Kosuke Fukudome is going to be a big deal this winter. He’s the next big thing from Japan, and you can scroll through multiple posts on him here.
But there’s another name surfacing on the radar: 32 year-old righthanded starter Koji Uehara. He’s a free agent likely to come over to MLB this winter (no posting fee). I wanted to learn more about him, so I consulted the authority on such matters: Mike Plugh. Mike runs the Uehara Watch blog. He also has Matsuzaka Watch and writes for Baseball Prospectus.
Our Uehara Q&A ran long so I’m breaking this up into two posts.
You’ve described Uehara as having an 88-90 mph fastball as well as many other pitches. Is his forkball his bread and butter? Is there anyone in MLB past or present you’d compare him to?
Koji Uehara has a fastball that tops out at 94-95mph, but he rarely hits that velocity anymore. His hallmark is control and he uses a slower fastball, at about 88-89 on the corners, more effectively as a veteran. His plus pitches include a knee-buckling forkball, a nice curve, and an effective slider. If I had to compare him to a Major Leaguer, I’d go with a more sturdy Brad Radke. He’s about the same size, right-handed, and has such amazing control that I’d be comfortable with that kind of expectation.
Given the apparent failure of Kei Igawa in the AL East, do you think American League teams will shy away from Uehara this winter? Is Uehara better than Igawa?
I think there are a number of teams that will be scared away from Uehara based on having seen Kazuhisa Ishii, Hideki Irabu, and Kei Igawa coming out of Japan’s Central League. Those teams probably will have made a mistake by not doing their homework. Uehara is one of the greatest pitchers of his generation. Where the other players had good numbers in Japan, Uehara also brings the same type of translatable ability that Daisuke Matsuzaka has. He knows how to pitch.
Uehara has been used as a reliever this year. Was that a surprise to you, and which role do you think he’ll fill for an MLB team?
The shift that Yomiuri has made this season hurts his potential value. The Giants used Uehara as their closer to break him in during a late start, the result of a lingering hamstring injury suffered in Spring Training. The team raced off to a fast start and management decided to keep him there. He’s excelled in the role, but he’s not happy. He’s one of the premiere starters in Japan and shouldn’t be in the closer’s role. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Giants are doing it to spite him, as they know he will be gone next year. In no way, shape, or form should he be considered anything but a starter in the Major Leagues.
Many thanks to Mike Plugh for the interview. I’ll post a couple of closing questions in Part 2 on Friday.