For all the difficult decisions Terry Francona had to make as manager of the Boston Red Sox, there was one easy choice over the past six seasons: When his team faced a save situation in the ninth inning, he handed the ball to Jonathan Papelbon.
But this is a new year with a new manager and a new closer. And as of Wednesday, there’s a new closer-for-now.
The job was supposed to belong to Andrew Bailey. But on the day Bailey was scheduled to undergo reconstructive surgery on his right thumb, new manager Bobby Valentine said Alfredo Aceves would be his closer on Opening Day.
Judging by Valentine’s choice of words, the move is semi-permanent. “On days when Alfredo is not available, if Mark Melancon’s available, he’ll be doing it,” he said.
It was the right call, even though Aceves has just four career saves in 240 innings. Aceves, a former Yankee, has a longer track record in the American League East than Melancon.
Melancon saved 20 games for the Houston Astros last year. But his 74 1/3 innings for the worst team in baseball meant less — combined — than the next one he pitches for the closely followed Red Sox.
Still, the news underscored just how difficult it has been for the Red Sox to distance themselves from the pitching woes that torpedoed their 2011 season. Subpar performances on the mound — much more than fried chicken and beer — were to blame for Boston’s historic collapse. And now an injury to Bailey has thrust Valentine’s pitching plans into disarray.
It could be several months before Bailey returns to the big leagues. At least for now, Valentine will go with a 13-man pitching staff. That was not his intention when spring training began. “It wasn’t a plan,” he said in a briefing at Comerica Park, where the Red Sox will open their season against the Tigers. “It was an adjustment to the plan.”
Aceves should be able to handle the job. He’s quirky. (Think Brian Wilson, without all the hair.) That actually helps. Asked what his entrance music at Fenway Park will be, he replied, “You will hear.” Asked how many pitch types he will deploy as a closer, he said, “You will see.” Inscrutable answers for an enigmatic man. He seems to like it that way.
Aceves showed greater candor in a recent interview with the Boston Globe, asserting that he “got no chance” to win a job in the starting rotation. Asked Wednesday to reflect on how this role compares to the one he really wanted, Aceves said, “I’m not disappointed, just to be clear on that.” Glad we’ve got that straight.
In choosing Aceves as the closer, the Red Sox reaffirmed their commitment to converted reliever Daniel Bard as a starting pitcher. Bard’s last start of spring training was his best — six innings, three earned runs, seven strikeouts — but I’m skeptical about his staying power. He hasn’t started since 2007, when he was in the Class A California League. (That didn’t go well.) Bard threw 73 innings last year, and it’s unclear how he might respond to double the workload.
The Red Sox would be wise to keep their options open with Bard. Sure, keep him in the rotation to start the season. They have invested a lot of time and energy in the project. But if Bard’s performance there is just mediocre, they must move him back to the bullpen — where he’s proved that he can impact games, and where the need might be greater, anyway. If Bard is going to give them a 4.00 ERA as a starter, the Red Sox might as well summon Aaron Cook.
There is doubt elsewhere in the rotation, too. Game 2 starter Josh Beckett has had his right thumb examined by two doctors in recent days; he’s been cleared to pitch, but the Tigers’ hitters may tell us more about how he feels than any medical professional. Left-hander Félix Doubront, slotted fourth, has made three major-league starts.
After a dreadful September and turbulent offseason, the Red Sox needed a smooth, healthy spring to renew optimism and change the conversation. That didn’t happen.