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Red Sox face rotation dilemma with Bard
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In a perfect world, the team would find a more proven No. 4 starter and return Bard to the bullpen. But if this were a perfect world, the Sox would not be in this position to begin with.
John Lackey or Daisuke Matsuzaka would be their No. 4. Instead, both are rehabilitating from their respective Tommy John surgeries. Or, the Sox would be trumpeting a new No. 4, someone they plucked in a trade or via the free-agent market.
But that’s not how this story evolved, is it?
The Sox wanted to mix in a low-cost starter as opposed to a pricey veteran. Bard, a right-hander earning $1.61 million in his first year of arbitration, was their most talented internal option.
He wants to start. The front office him wants him to start. The Sox, with two openings in the rotation and less than two weeks to Opening Day, seem unlikely to snub him for both right-hander Alfredo Aceves and lefty Felix Doubront.
The bigger question is whether Bard will become this year’s Alexi Ogando, making a successful conversion to the rotation, or whether he will pitch his way back to the bullpen, where the Sox ultimately might need him more.
Know this: A number of people in baseball are skeptical about Bard as a starter — and were skeptical even before he produced a 7.23 ERA in his first five Grapefruit League appearances, issuing 13 walks in 18 2/3 innings.
Spring-training stats essentially are meaningless, particularly for a 26-year-old pitcher who is starting for the first time since he was at Class A in 2007, his first pro season.
The concerns about Bard run deeper.
In the words of one scout, Bard could be “Joba Chamberlain all over again,” losing velocity and life on his fastball as he takes on a starter’s workload instead of just pitching in one-inning bursts.
Chamberlain’s average fastball velocity diminished from 95.2 mph when he was a reliever in ’08 to 92.5 mph when he was a starter in ’09. Bard averaged 97.2 mph last season, third best in the majors among pitchers who worked at least 50 innings, according to Fangraphs.com.
On Sunday, in a six-inning stint against the Toronto Blue Jays, he touched 97 mph but mostly was 93 to 95 early and 92-93 later. He was 94-97 in some of his earlier spring outings.
“Not as hard, but hard enough,” said the Jays’ Jose Bautista, whom Bard hit in the hand with a 90-mph changeup. “It’s kind of surprising he’s still throwing that hard, to be honest with you, with the amount of pitches he’s throwing.”
Bard, though, has known success only in the upper range. What’s more, his delivery is so loose and smooth, one rival official said that hitters would enjoy “a comfortable at-bat” hitting against him at lower velocities. The official added that while Bard’s fastball command is only average, hitters experience greater urgency when he’s throwing 97-98, chasing more pitches out of the strike zone.
Another concern with Bard is that he was a two-pitch pitcher in relief, relying on his fastball and slider last season and throwing his changeup only 7.4 percent of the time. The Red Sox, though, believe that Bard’s changeup is an effective pitch, and he also mixed in a two-seam (sinking) fastball against the Blue Jays.
“Today was the first game I can actually say I felt like a starting pitcher out there, not like a reliever starting,” Bard said.
“And he looked like one,” manager Bobby Valentine added, hardly dismayed that Bard allowed five runs in six innings.
Valentine reportedly favors the return of Bard to a setup role; the Sox’s bullpen is even more questionable than their rotation. But Valentine, who expressed frustration earlier this spring that Bard was not throwing his changeup more often, went out of his way to praise the pitcher on Sunday.
“Overall, I liked everything,” Valentine said. “He had some tough breaks, worked his way out of jams, had some pitches that could have been called strikes, didn’t let it affect him, threw all of his pitches today.
“His changeup at times was devastating. His slider was sharp at times. What was there not to like other than the five runs on the board? And I thought some of those could have been prevented.”
Perhaps Valentine is trying to downplay his reported differences with general manager Ben Cherington; Valentine, in other postgame remarks Sunday, all but named Mike Aviles his starting shortstop, when rookie Jose Iglesias supposedly is the manager’s preferred choice.
Or, perhaps Valentine recognizes that he needs to build up the confidence of Bard, who said that he doesn’t “read anything that’s written . . . or as little as possible.”
Bard, in interviews, comes off as affable, well-spoken and self-assured. However, he occasionally has exhibited a fragile psyche — most notably when he melted down as a starter in ’07, issuing 78 walks, throwing 27 wild pitches and averaging fewer than four innings per outing. He also struggled last September — along with practically every member of the Red Sox’s pitching staff, of course.
The Red Sox, by moving Bard to the rotation, would take him out of his comfort zone. Bard, though, said that he is a “totally different pitcher” than he was in ’07, much more equipped to become a starter.
“I was a straight-up thrower back then,” Bard said. “Not that I’m Greg Maddux now, but I think I have the ability to command four pitches, grind through innings, grind through games.
“If you watched me back then, a leadoff walk and I was, like, screwed. It was in my head. It was all I was thinking about. First guy (reaches) on an error, I’d be thinking about that. I didn’t know anything about the mental game of pitching. I’ve matured a lot in that respect.”
At this point, he deserves the benefit of the doubt — and the Red Sox actually are more concerned with their lack of rotation depth, particularly when compared with the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, than with the identities of their fourth and fifth starters.
The Sox would not expect Bard to perform at a top-of-the-rotation level. And they would not be without options if he failed.
Right-hander Aaron Cook, slowed by injuries this spring, cannot opt out of his minor league deal until May 1. Matsuzaka could return by June. And the Sox could trade for a pitcher or sign free-agent righty Roy Oswalt by July, if not sooner.
Bard, for his part, made progress Sunday, pitching more aggressively, developing a better routine between innings, shifting his weight forward in both the windup and stretch to get a similar flow in both deliveries.
In a perfect world, he would be nowhere near the Red Sox’s rotation. In the real world, it’s getting too late for the team to turn back.
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