FORT MYERS, Fla. — Koji Uehara was open to hearing from any team when he became a free agent last fall. But he was not expecting the Red Sox to pursue him.
From across the field, Uehara saw the Sox had major holes in their lineup and rotation. But he thought their bullpen was strong.
“There’s a lot of very highly respected pitchers on the roster,” Uehara said Wednesday. “I thought maybe there were a lot of difficult personalities. That is something you think about.”
Uehara accepted a one-year deal worth $4.25 million and arrived at spring training wondering what he would encounter. In the four weeks since, the veteran righthander has been pleased his initial suspicions proved unfounded.
“The guys here are great. Even Hanrahan,” he said, pointing to closer Joel Hanrahan, who was listening to Uehara from his seat at an adjacent locker. “I like it here.”
Hanrahan laughed when he heard interpreter C.J. Matsumoto translate the response. So did Daniel Bard, sitting a few feet away.
Uehara clapped Hanrahan on the shoulder, enjoying the little joke.
“I try to have fun,” he said. “I speak better English than Hanrahan speaks Japanese. But I am trying to teach him.”
Unlike Daisuke Matsuzaka, who rarely interacted with teammates during his uneven six years with the Red Sox, Uehara seems to delight in clubhouse banter. With occasional help from Matsumoto, he takes part in discussions and has made himself part of the fabric of the team.
“Koji is a good guy. I didn’t really know him before this year, but it has been fun being around him,” Hanrahan said. “And the guy can really pitch.”
Uehara spent 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, the powerhouse Japanese team. He was a successful starter for the first eight seasons before becoming a closer in 2007.
Uehara became a free agent before the 2009 season and signed with the Orioles. A two-year, $10 million contract provided ample incentive to play in the United States. But Uehara also wanted to experience a different side of baseball.
“I had played in a lot of international games in my career and I wanted to test myself against major league players,” said Uehara, a member of Japan’s team that won the 2006 World Baseball Classic. “I was ready to try something different.”
Uehara started 12 games for the Orioles in his first season before an elbow injury ended his season in June. In the three years since, he has been one of the best relievers in the game.
Uehara has a 2.36 earned run average and an 0.77 WHIP as a reliever in the majors with an average of 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Over 145 innings he has walked only 17 and has not hit a batter.
“He’s one of the best in the business, period,” Hanrahan said. “His statistics are unbelievable.”
Red Sox starter Ryan Dempster played with Uehara in Texas last season and also came away impressed.
“Throws strikes, keeps his [split-finger fastball] down and isn’t afraid of the situation,” Dempster said. “He was great.”
Uehara appeared in 37 games for the Rangers last year, his season interrupted by a long stay on the disabled list with a strained muscle behind his shoulder. But he was dominant when he pitched, allowing 20 hits over 36 innings and striking out 43.
“Those who pay attention to the game know he’s a very valuable and very competent reliever,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “He’s got his own style; he’s got a lot of deception. If you must measure it out in terms of the radar gun, it’s average velocity. His deception, his command, is outstanding.”
The Red Sox want to use Uehara as a late-inning setup man, somebody who can pitch the entire seventh or eighth inning.
“When you look at strikeout ability, can attack lefties and righties. He’s not a situational righthander by any means,” Farrell said.
Uehara will turn 38 in April and the Red Sox plan to be cautious in not overusing him. Although his statistics do not reflect that, the Sox feel Uehara will benefit from not pitching on back-to-back days.
“You look back on his usage, that’s when he seems to have his best outings,” Farrell said. “Coming in to start an inning, work his way through any traffic if it does emerge inside a given inning. Not to say that he can’t pitch on back-to-back days. But when he’s been used every other day type of approach, he’s been really good.”
Uehara hopes to pitch another few years, saying he enjoys the lifestyle and the competition. He was not on the Texas roster for the 2011 World Series, the product of two poor outings in the American League Championship Series.
“I’d like to get another chance and maybe play in the World Series,” he said. “I try to enjoy every day as much as I can. Maybe somebody will give me five-year deal.”
That is not going to happen. But Uehara looks to be an important piece of the Red Sox bullpen.
“This is a good situation for me,” he said. “I’m glad I decided to come here.”