To say the least, Koji Uehara has had a very up-and-down rookie season with the Baltimore Orioles. In 12 starts, he is 2-4 with a 4.05 ERA, has walked just 12 in 66 and two thirds innings, and has yet to hit batter. While he's done a good job for a rookie, he's had his share of downs.
O's fans have come to notice he doesn't have much to work with after the fifth inning. He has pitched seven innings just once, an Apr. 19 start against the Boston Red Sox in which he allowed two runs in a loss.
Also, he has struggled all year with his conditioning. In an Apr. 29 loss to the Angels, he allowed three runs in six-and-a-third innings, and left the game with an injury, something he knows all about.
In a May 23 start against the Washington Nationals, he was solid through three innings, allowing three hits, and no runs. However, after just 56 pitches, he was gassed, thus taken out of the game.
Then again in a start against the Florida Marlins on June 23, he pitched well, allowing just one run in six innings, but struggled with his conditioning, failing to cover first base on ground balls on multiple occasions.
Now, manager Dave Trembley says that it's "highly doubtful" Uehara makes his next start, a June 28 matchup against the Washington Nationals. "I would say that it would be highly doubtful for him to pitch on Sunday. Highly doubtful," Trembley said.
The manager also said he's shown improvement, but hasn't even touched a baseball since the day after his last start, which shows something is clearly wrong. Right now, it appears his replacement will be David Hernandez. According to reliable MASNSports blogger Roch Kubatko, "There's no doubt it's him."
Hernandez, 23, has all the time in the world ahead of him. A 2005 16th-round draft pick, he dominated Norfolk before being promoted to Baltimore, where he was respectable, sporting a 3.95 ERA. However, because Hernandez is so young, they decided a few more innings in Triple A would help.
Therefore, they decided to demote the young Hernandez to Norfolk and keep the struggling 25-year old Jason Berken. Hernandez struggled in his first two starts back, allowing seven runs in ten innings, sporting a less than solid 6.30 ERA. It looked as if he would never regain his confidence. Not so fast.
In his next start, he pitched four solid innings. Not just four solid innings. He pitched those four frames without allowing a walk or hit. So, yes, he pitched a perfect game. It's not official yet, but it appears the organization decided to yank him from the game and call him up for a Sunday start—in Uehara's place.
Now, Hernandez can provide a solid presence in the back end of the rotation like Uehara has been all season long. However, what are the O's going to do when Uehara is back and healthy in weeks?
I think many fans agree when I say it'd be best to put him in the long man role. When you look at Uehara's starts, you'll notice he does a fantastic job through the first three, four, and sometimes five innings.
However, when he's through the third time in the batting order, he's unable to make the adjustments to shut the opposing lineup down. His last start was a prime example of that.
Through four innings, he allowed just two hits and no runs. However, during the fifth and sixth innings, he allowed a combined five hits. Thanks to some untimely hitting by the Marlins, he only allowed one run to score. But boy, could he have allowed many more.
So, Uehara would make an ideal long man. He could play in a Brian Bass type role. Bass was a starter in the Minnesota Twins system, but the Twins decided to convert him to a relief role. Last year, he was traded to the O's and did a decent job in 44 appearances for Baltimore, going 3-4 with a 4.87 earned run average.
He struggled mightily to start the 2009 season as well, with a 6.35 ERA in his first eight appearances, but had a 1.65 ERA in May and 3.86 mark in June. On the year, he is 4-2 with a 4.00 ERA, 30 strikeouts, and 16 walks.
Uehara could be almost identical to Bass. Both guys are pitchers who as starters, aren't the definition of workhorses. They both can't go much more than five innings per start, but fit perfectly as long men coming out of the bullpen.
Throughout the 2009 season, Bass has been a guy who can come in when a starter struggles, can pitch three innings, and hopefully, keep the O's in the game. And in May and June, he has done a good job of that.
If Uehara goes on the DL, it'll be interesting to see what happens when he comes back. It's possible that the O's send down Jason Berken, who has been struggling, or Chris Ray, who was horrible in his last experience.
However, that can basically be ignored right now, as that decision won't be made for likely two weeks. Maybe Ray and/or Berken can turn it around and make the decision tougher.
However, one thing that is for certain is that Koji Uehara will fit a lot better in a relief role than as a starter.