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Aside from the hiring of Bobby Valentine, perhaps the most debated topic in this 2012 season for the Boston Red Sox has been finding a place for Daniel Bard. The former reliever excelled in the bullpen as the Red Sox set up man in each of the last two seasons, pitching 147.2 innings while striking out 150 batters and holding a great 2.62 ERA. In 2010 he was arguable the best set up in baseball, and while 2011 was a step back for him, his ability to lock down the eighth inning in tight games was clearly not one of the issues with the ballclub.
However, both because of the desire of the pitcher and the vision of the Red Sox starting pitching outlook in 2012, Bard was stretched out in spring training as a potential starter. From the start he clearly struggled with his command making the transition, and with the beginning of the regular season came a pitcher who seemingly lost the ability to reach the high 90s with his fastball and strike out batters consistently. This year in ten starts (55.0 innings), Bard has struck out just 34 batters while walking 37 and hitting eight, which was highlighted in his most recent start in Toronto.
His struggles prompted a recent demotion to the minor leagues, where Bard is expected to work on his mechanics for at least a few weeks. His reaction to the move by the organization was not exactly positive to say the least:
“It’s not my decision. I’m just an employee here. Obviously, I’m not thrilled with it. If it was me making the decision it might have been different. But I tried to be respectful about it. Once I get the anger and disappointment out of the way you just have to try to make the best out of the situation.”
What the Sox have now is a wild pitcher with big league potential, pitching with something to prove in Pawtucket. The question of how to turn this Daniel Bard into the pitcher the Sox need begins with the same question everyone has been asking: Is he a starter or a reliever?
The Red Sox bullpen has been tremendous lately (save an 8-6 in 10 innings earlier this week). Thinking that a relieving core led by Scott Atchison, Matt Albers, and Alfredo Aceves will continue to find the magic to shut down opposing hitters through the next four months of the season is probably a bit much to ask, but consider midseason arrivals on their way back to bolster the depths of the team.
The two notable acquisitions to the bullpen in the offseason, Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, should be returning to the team sooner than later given Bailey’s road to recovery from thumb surgery and Melancon’s stellar performance in the minor leagues. With those two relievers added to deepen the pen, it’s hard to think there could be a place for Bard there if he is to return to the majors as a reliever.
The starting rotation right now has been stronger than the beginning of the year, when a quality start seemed like a distant fantasy. Clay Buchholz shut down the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday, and Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are reliable when it comes to keeping the Sox in games. Felix Doubront starts tonight, and has been arguably the most consistent starter all year long, while the open fifth slot now belongs to Daisuke Matsuzaka, making his highly anticipated return from Tommy John surgery on Saturday.
When Bailey and Melancon return, the current closer Aceves should return to becoming the flexible middle of the game pitcher who can get the call to start every once and a while. If a pitcher was to go down while Bard is working on his stuff in the minors, Aceves or Aaron Cook would likely be the first option to plug the hole in the rotation. I’m not sure how much more confident the team can be that Bard can be put into that situation anytime soon.
Unless Daniel Bard excels in the minor leagues to epic proportions, I’m not sure he should be seen as a pitcher who needs to be in the big leagues anytime soon. I believe the organization should continue the development of him as a starter, and definitively acknowledge that for his future as a pitcher, he will be a always be a starter. Doing so will end the drama of whether or not he belongs in the bullpen or the rotation, and will allow the pitcher to mentally focus on pitching as opposed to the sideshow of questions about his role.
Given that, I was not a believer of Bard as a starter in spring training. I believe that if Bard had been given back the eighth inning or even the closer role after the injury of Bailey, not only would the team be better off but Bard would still be in the major leagues today, and he’d probably be poised for an All-Star caliber season instead of feeling like an employee instead of a pitcher.
Tags: Aaron Cook, Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Bailey, Bobby Valentine, Boston Red Sox, Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Daniel Bard, Felix Doubront, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Mark Melancon, Matt Albers, Scott Atchison