Uehara ready to show Cubs he has lots of high-fives left in tank
MESA, Ariz. — Now that backup catcher David Ross has retired to dance with the stars, the oldest guy on the Cubs’ roster is right-handed reliever Koji Uehara, who seemed to set the stage this week for what could be a major-league record retirement tour.
Older than all three retired-pitcher special front office assistants — Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster and Kerry Wood — Uehara was asked how long he would like to keep pitching, and he said simply, in English: “Two years.”
And you thought Ross’s 2016 farewell tour lasted a long time.
Whether Uehara is able to get his two years in with the Cubs likely will have a lot to do with how he pitches.
The Cubs signed the free agent reliever to a one-year, $6 million deal this offseason.
Uehara, who turns 42 the second day of the season, is essentially a left setup man for the Cubs. In his career, he’s been more effective against left-handed hitters than righties, including a .139 average-against (.478 OPS) facing lefties last year; .253 (and .812) against right-handers.
In his spring debut this week, he needed just 10 pitches to retire the side in order during his inning of work against the Rangers.
If he can keep that up and produce the kind of results he had in Boston the last four years (with ERAs of 1.09, 2.52, 2.23 and 3.45), he just might get that Grandpa Koji retirement tour in 2018, if not his second World Series ring.
Uehara, who recorded the final out of the 2013 World Series, seems to have incentive to pitch into his mid-40s.
“It’s more that I pitched 10 years back in Japan,” he said in Japanese through his translator. “So to pitch 10 years here is my goal.”
Uehara was an ace starter in Japan, twice leading the league in strikeouts and ERA, once in innings pitched and three times in complete games.
After signing with the Orioles in 2009, he started 12 games before suffering a hamstring injury in May and then an elbow injury in June, which sidelined him for the rest of the season.
He has been one of the more consistent relievers in the American League since then.
“It was awesome. I love Koji,” former Red Sox teammate Jon Lester said of the Cubs’ signing. “He’s probably one of my favorite guys to have played with. Just the energy that he brings, the competitiveness, the high fives in the dugout after he gets out of an inning are pretty special. I can’t wait to see some of the faces when he does that for the first time.”
His exuberant, aggressive dugout high-fives in Boston became so popular they inspired a video.
“It wasn’t that aggressive in Japan, but I was doing it,” said Uehara. “I can’t be like that the first time out.”
Uehara attributes his longevity to long work days that involve being one of the first players to arrive to the clubhouse.
“He adds that veteran kind of presence down there in the bullpen,” Lester said. “It’ll be a good addition for us.”
Uehara said he had several other offers. “But the main reason I chose this team was I thought this team had the best chance to win it all,” he said.