It's been said before, but obviously the bullpen of the 2017 Chicago Cubs will be an entirely different animal than the one that helped propel the 2016 edition to a World Series Championship.
Uehara has been nothing but reliable (oftentimes downright dominant) since coming over from Japan in 2009. For his career with Baltimore, Texas and Boston, Uehara has posted a phenomenal 2.53 ERA, 10.7 K/9 and 1.4 BB/9 over 437 2/3 innings. Notably, the righty has also been quite tough on opposite-handed hitters (.181 career BAA), an important quirk to a team without a declared LOOGY in the pen.
Of course, Koji doesn't come without some risks. First off, the eight-year veteran will turn 42 this year and is coming off of his worst year in the Bigs, with a dip in velocity and a pectoral injury hindering him. That said, Koji still managed to be effective - 3.45 ERA, 12.1 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9 over 47 innings. Was 2016 an aberration in a long track record of success or the start of a sudden decline? We shall see.
No matter, bringing a reliever with the track record of Uehara, on such a modest deal, is an excellent chance to take. A pen with a healthy and effective Koji, the aforementioned Davis, Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop at the back end looks exceptionally intimidating - dare I say, shutdown. In short, I love this move and have been secretly rooting for it since the rumors of Theo meeting with Koji's agent dropped a few days ago.
On the flip side, if Koji is, in fact, entering his twilight years, the cost and commitment are minimal. While it would definitely suck eggs, the Cubs could swallow the cost of his contract relatively easy. This is a patented Theo Epstein low risk/high reward pitching addition.
Koji made his first All-Star team in 2014
Now - it's fun fact time. By my calculations, Koji is the sixth Japanese import to blow through the Windy City's Northside. Preceding him, all since 2008, were Kosuke Fukudome, Hisanori Takahashi, Kyuji Fujikawa, Tsuyoshi Wada and Munenori Kawasaki, the latter of which shares an agent with Uehara. It remains to be seen if the popular utility infielder will be back in Chicago or return to Japan for the 2017 season.
Furthermore, in the entire history of the Chicago National League Ballclub, Uehara is only the third player with a surname which begins with the letter "U" to ever suit up in Cubbie blue. Since 1870, only Bob Usher and John Upham have shared the 21st letter of the alphabet with Uehara:
Bob Usher played all of one game for the Lovable Losers in 1952, walking in one AB without taking the field. Usher also patrolled the outfield for Cincinatti, Cleveland and Washington throughout the fifties. Meanwhile, John Upham originally came up to Chicago in 1967 as a pitcher, getting lit up for five games in 1967. The next year, he tried to reinvent himself as a Brooks Kieschnick-type of player, pitching and playing the outfield. However, he was out of the Majors after that '68 campaign.
One more fun fact, here's something that ran across my Twitter feed as news of the signing began to break:
Cubs have 3 of last 4 pitchers who got last out of #WorldSeries— Michael Liu (@liuchiahow) December 8, 2016
2013 #RedSox Koji Uehara
2015 #Royals Wade Davis
2016 #Cubs Mike Montgomery pic.twitter.com/PrRupbSvsQ
How cool is that? I don't think the Cubs will prying Madison Bumgarner away from the Giants anytime soon, to complete that collection. However, 2012's final pitcher, Sergio Romo, is a free agent on the market...
It'd also be nice to see Wade Davis' name make that list again in 2017, just sayin'.
To conclude, to honor Koji's signing with the Chicago Cubs, I decided to whip up a custom Cubs card to welcome him to the Second City:
Thanks to that Lebron James custom I made a few days ago, I now have an easily-tweakable template for the 2017 Topps Flagship design. I think I'll be having a lot of fun with this as the seasons rolls on.
Welcome to Chicago, Koji! Also, welcome to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection binder. "U" will have Usher and Upham to keep you company.