The ninth inning has been something of a sore spot for the Red Sox this season. Joel Hanrahan was terrible, then hurt (or hurt because he was terrible). Andrew Bailey was excellent in April, but struggled after coming back from his injury, bottoming out this month. Something of a panic broke out last week, when Bailey blew two games in three days, that the Red Sox needed to acquire a new closer.
Yes, I agree with you - the idea of the closer is, itself, dumb. Saving your best pitcher for in case you're winning makes no sense. You're preaching to the choir. The fact is, teams use a closer, and it's a good idea for your closer to be a good pitcher. Moving on.
Anyhow, one prominent suggestion was that the Red Sox should work out a deal with a Phillies team stuck in baseball purgatory for Jonathan Papelbon. This is a bad idea. One reason that it's a bad idea is that it's dumb to trade for saves. Pitchers with saves cost more money than pitchers without saves, even though they aren't generally better. SOME are better. Mariano Rivera and Craig Kimbrel and Billy Wagner and Dennis Eckersley are/were mcuh better than their contemporaries. But, as the Red Sox have learned the hard way THREE @#$%^& TIMES in the last two years, trading for Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon because they had saves isn't a panacea. Trading for pretty good pitchers and making them closers? Yes! Trading for pretty good pitchers who have racked up saves? No!
Jonathan Papelbon is a pretty good pitcher. From 2006 to maybe 2009 he was a great pitcher. In 2010 he was mediocre. Since 2011, he's been between good and very good. The problem is, he won't cost what a good to very good pitcher will. That's one reason the Red Sox shouldn't trade for him. The other is that they have a reliever who is better.
Actually, they might have two who are better, but Junichi Tazawa's track record is short, even if his K/BB ratio isn't.
Anyhow, let's go to the old comparison chart! These numbers are since the start of the 2012 season.
Since you've already read the title to this piece, you know that Player A is Jonathan Papelbon and Player B is Koji Uehara. Papelbon beats Uehara is saves. He also is ahead in innings, so if you want to argue that he's more durable, you might be right, but the difference in their chances of getting hurt in the second half of 2013 is not worth what the Red Sox would have to give up for Paps. Since the start of last year, Uehara has struck out more batters, walked fewer, and been harder to hit. As a result, he gives up runs less frequently
If the Red Sox are going to use the traditional closer - and as a first place team following three straight playoff misses, they are - Uehara is a perfect choice.
Aside: The Red Sox aren't an ideal candidate for revolutionary bullpen usage. And by "revolutionary," I mean "what they did in 1987."
Uehara's home run rate is a touch higher than I'd like to see, but there are so few runners on when he pitches that they are that they are likely to be solo shots. Indeed, three of the four he's allowed in 2013 have been with the bases empty. More importantly, Uehara represents an opportunity for the Red Sox to finally create their own closer, the way they did seven years ago with Papelbon. Uehara is a one-inning guy, so it's not like using him for short stints otherwise jeopardizes his usefulness. (Farrell continues to use Tazawa for one-inning stints as well, which is a soap box that I'm not planning to get off of.) He came cheap.
The idea that someone the Red Sox could acquire is likely outperform Uehara over the next four months by such an amount as to justify the cost of that acquisition is kind of crazy. He's been one of the better relievers in baseball since the Orioles moved him there at the start of 2010, and has brought that to another, elite level over the last year and a half.
You may say that the Red Sox need now to fill the role Uehara is vacating if they use him as closer, and that's true to an extent. However, getting a "middle reliever" from outside the organization is much less expensive than getting Jonathan Papelbon, and the Red Sox have internal options for the role as well. Alex Wilson, Rubby De La Rosa, and Brandon Workman could all be solid relievers right now, and Jose De La Torre could as well. Another option would be to not get into such rigid usage patterns with the current crop of guys. Craig Breslow, Andrew Miller, and Junichi Tazawa can pitch multiple innings. Farrell needs to let them do that sometimes. Burning through five relievers to get 11 outs is incredibly inefficient. It's one of the reasons there has been talk of the Red Sox pen being "overused" despite the fact they've gotten an above-average number of innings from their starting pitching.
The Red Sox are in first place, and they have one of the best relievers in the game as the closer. Since taking over the role, he's retired all six batters he's faced, four via the strikeout. He gives the best high-fives in the game, which is worth something. If you want to argue that Uehara doesn't have the "closer's mentality," I don't know what to tell you. I'm pretty sure the idea of a "closer's mentality" is made up, but if anyone has it then it's Uehara - he comes into the game with his sort of crazed intensity that I certainly wouldn't want to be in the way of.
Instead of giving up prospects for a closer, the Red Sox just need to trust the best reliever they have to do the job.