Notebook: 'Personal attachment' brings Uehara back to Orioles

Reliever could make $11.5 million over next two seasons if incentives are reached

December 14, 2010|By Jeff Zrebiec and Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun

With a wide smile that extended to almost where his trademark long sideburns ended, Koji Uehara hugged Orioles teammate Brian Roberts and then his manager, Buck Showalter.

It was this "personal attachment" to his teammates, the organization and the city of Baltimore that Uehara cited in his decision to re-sign with the Orioles. The one-year, $3 million deal, which was finalized when the 35-year-old reliever passed a physical Monday, includes a vesting option for 2012 based on appearances and games finished.

If he reaches all the incentives in the deal, Uehara could earn $11.5 million over two seasons, $1.5 million more than in the two-year pact the pitcher signed with the club out of Japan before the 2009 season.

"I'm excited; I'm really happy," Uehara said through interpreter Jiwon Bang at the Orioles' annual Holiday Party for Kids at Dave & Busters in the Arundel Mills Mall. Several current and former Orioles played host to 80 students from Samuel F.B. Morse School.

"I've been here for two years, and I was satisfied with the way I finished the season last season. I became more confident to play at this level."

Uehara, who had four stints on the disabled list in his first 11/2 seasons with the club, went 1-2 with a 2.86 ERA in 43 appearances in 2010. He became the team's closer in late August and converted 13 of 15 save opportunities. He also led American League relievers in strikeout-to-walk ratio (11.00) and walks per nine innings (1.02).

Because of his strong second half, Uehara garnered interest from multiple clubs, though he told his agent, Mark Pieper, that his preference was to return to Baltimore, where his family lives year-round.

"From the beginning, I did not think this is where it was headed," Pieper said. "We kind of started off a little slow. Other teams that had interest in him were picking up steam faster than I anticipated. I don't know that we were exactly sure where Baltimore was on this thing. But [president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail] and I reconnected. It was a meeting of the minds that we should do our best to see where we could go with this. We honed in on the one team that seemed to want to do this and the place where we thought he would be most comfortable."

What's still unsettled is whether Uehara will close or serve as a setup man. The Orioles still have interest in several potential free-agent closers, including Kevin Gregg and Bobby Jenks.

"I'm not looking at myself as the closer. If they want me to do, I'll be happy to do it," Uehara said. "If they want me to set up, I'll be the setup guy as well."

Bell focused on himself

When Josh Bell learned that the Orioles had traded for Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Mark Reynolds last week, he said he wasn't surprised — and wasn't particularly discouraged, either.

"I've not put too much thought on it, personally," Bell said in a phone interview from his offseason home in Arizona. "I knew that they were going to try and bring someone in. And my job is the same, to go out in spring training, do my best and prove somebody wrong."

Bell, 24, was immediately thought to be the organization's third baseman of the future when the Orioles acquired him in July 2009 from the Los Angeles Dodgers for reliever George Sherrill.

He got his chance last season, when he was promoted in July and handed a starting spot in August after the club traded Miguel Tejada to the San Diego Padres. His defense was an upgrade over Tejada's, but he hit just .214 with three homers and 12 RBIs in 159 at-bats. Bell struck out 53 times while walking twice.

Meanwhile, Reynolds is just 27, under club control for at least two more years and considered a solid defender with legitimate power. Assuming the Orioles sign a free-agent first baseman, Bell, theoretically, would be blocked at third and first for at least next year.

"My hitting wasn't where I wanted to be, but I felt good defensively and I feel I can play at that level," Bell said.

The Orioles told him they wanted him in better shape in 2011, and he has been working toward that goal. A big man at 6 feet 3, he said his weight reached 242 pounds at the end of last season. He's down to 230, thanks to two-a-day workouts in Arizona. He often hikes in the morning and works out in the evening. He also said he is eating better in hope of getting down to 220, his ideal weight.

On Monday, Showalter and Bell talked on the phone. Showalter said he wanted to hear how the conditioning was going and he also wanted Bell to know the organization still believes in him. The worst-case scenario for Bell, Showalter said, is that he plays every day at Triple-A in 2011. The best-case scenario is that he makes the team out of spring training, playing some corner infield and maybe some designated hitter.

Arrieta feeling good

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