Koji Uehara Is The Orioles' Gift That Keeps On Giving
By Jim Henneman
It was mid-summer 2010, and, as you probably don't need to be reminded, things weren't going too well for the Orioles. Andy MacPhail was in the second half of his contract as the team's architect; Dave Trembley was the manager; and, unknown to most, Buck Showalter was off in the wings trying to decide whether he'd like to spend the rest of his professional baseball life with the Orioles.
Baltimore relief pitcher Koji Uehara had been what many thought was MacPhail's token venture into the foreign market, and things were not going particularly well for him, either. Signed to work in the top of the starting rotation, Uehara showed some promise, but had a hard time handling the Baltimore heat and humidity. He went only 2-4 during 12 games as a starter and missed most of the year because of injuries.
Few could have imagined the impact veteran right-hander Uehara would have on the Orioles. Three years later, he could best be described as the gift that keeps on giving. But that's getting ahead of the story.
The dog days of summer arrived early in 2010, and you had to be an eternal optimist to think the light at the end of the tunnel was anything other than an approaching train. It was under those drab circumstances that Dean Albany -- one of the organization's top scouts and the guy who spent a good part of his adult life running Youse's Orioles, one of the premier amateur teams in the country -- made an observation that, under the circumstances, was a cross between wishful thinking and a pipe dream.
"We need to get lucky," Albany said either before or after a gut-wrenching loss that had become too familiar. "We need to catch a break with a player."
He was talking about somebody who could be a missing ingredient in the lineup. As it turns out, he had the right position, the right kind of hitter, just not the right player, at least to that point.
"We need somebody like [then-Orioles prospect] Joe Mahoney to become a 30-home-run guy, a middle-of-the-order hitter, somebody to fit in with Adam [Jones] and Nick [Markakis]," Albany said. "We've had a lot of bad luck. We're due to get a break with one of these guys."
Little did Albany realize, the Orioles were about to get lucky. It would take more than a year, and it wasn't Mahoney, a promising player Albany had scouted. At the time, Mahoney was in the process of a season split between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie. He hit .307 in 2010, with 18 home runs and 78 RBIs, winning the Orioles' Brooks Robinson Award as the organization's top minor league player.
But Mahoney's career was marred by injuries, and the Marlins claimed him on waivers in 2012. One of the reasons Mahoney ended up on waivers, of course, was another left-handed-hitting first baseman, Chris Davis, who just might be the player Albany was looking for three years ago.
And the reason Davis is in this picture is … voila … Uehara. Showalter was named O's manager July 29, 2010, before Uehara established himself as a solid setup man out of the bullpen. One year and one day later, at least somewhat influenced by Showalter's experience from his managing days in Texas, the Orioles traded Uehara to the Rangers for Davis and right-handed starting pitcher Tommy Hunter.
Even though Hunter had been a starting pitcher in the World Series in 2009 and Davis had 17 home runs and 55 RBIs during 80 games in 2008, most people considered this trade to be one proven commodity for two prospects/suspects.
In 2013, despite a recent relapse after a torrid start, Davis looks like the player Albany talked about three years ago -- the player Baltimore needed to get lucky with to move to the next level. In those days, the next level was respectability, being competitive, and getting to and beyond a .500 record.
Now, the next level is beyond the second tier of postseason play, which the Orioles reached in 2012. The next level is playing with the big boys. It's not easy to get there, and it doesn't come overnight, or even after the first leap, which the Orioles took in 2012. The difference may be that the Orioles had that guy they needed to get lucky with, in Albany's words -- Davis, a left-handed power hitter more advanced and just as young as Mahoney.
Plus, Baltimore got a bonus in the deal.
"Don't rule Hunter out of that equation," one veteran major league scout said. "He could be somebody's closer down the road. He's young, he throws strikes and he has a great arm. He's prone to the home run, but if he gets around that, he could be special too."
Three years ago, Albany thought the Orioles were one player away from turning it around. Little did he know that one player might have been Uehara. Uehara might not have liked the heat, but he still lives in Baltimore, and he brought a two-for-one return that, who knows, might go down as one of the best in Orioles' history.
You can almost see the inscription on his Orioles Hall of Fame plaque: "Koji: The Gift That Keeps On Giving."
As long as suspensions and investigations related to performance-enhancing drugs keep coming, and there's no indication they will stop any time soon, average sports fans can only wonder whether they will ever be free of the impact of PEDs. Perhaps even more important is whether the average sports fan cares -- or at least cares enough to stop watching games, either in person or via the tube. In other words, does he or she care enough to stop caring?
Remember, the average sports fan is not among the season-ticket holders who help fill the 70,000-plus seats at M&T Bank Stadium to watch the Ravens, and may not even be among the two million-plus likely to see the Orioles throughout the 2013 season at Camden Yards. The average fan is more of a casual observer than one whose life too often revolves around the fortunes of his or her favorite teams.
In sports parlance, they are called fanatics, and, quite frankly, there are a good number who care only about outcomes of the games in which they have interest. For the most part, they could care less about how, or why, a win -- or horror of horrors, a loss -- went into the record book.
That doesn't work with the casual fan, and that's the one baseball executives should be most concerned about. With a 162-game schedule, as opposed to 16 for the NFL, MLB is a day-to-day operation. When the casual fan reaches the point of not caring, baseball is in trouble. This is the real reason the game has gotten the most attention and suffered the most damage -- and has to be the most vigilant in helping to clean up the mess. This is definitely a to-be-continued story.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Issue 186: June 2013