Bard’s Start Complicates Matters

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Daniel Bard made his first major league start against the Blue Jays last night and the line was ugly: 5 innings; 8 hits; 5 earned runs; 1 walk; and 6 strikeouts. He threw 96 pitches and 65 strikes and didn’t allow a homer.

But the bottom line of the boxscore is misleading. In fact, most of the runs were scored on placement rather than power. Bard’s biggest problem was the inability to throw his changeup for strikes.

Neftali Feliz made his first major league start as well and his line was far more impressive: 7 innings; 4 hits; 0 runs; 2 walks; and 4 strikeouts. He threw 108 pitches and 68 strikes.

Bard took the loss. Feliz got the win. In truth, they didn’t pitch all that differently. Feliz had better control of his changeup and worse control with his fastball and slider.

None of that is going to matter to those who’ve already made their minds up on how Bard needs to be utilized. Because he gave up 5 runs and the Red Sox bullpen is still in flux, the calls will continue to shift Bard into the closer’s role. After all, the argument will go, he lost and didn’t pitch “well”.

The results weren’t good, but Bard was good enough to win if he’d had some better luck.

There will be no such calls for Feliz to be moved back to the bullpen.

Why?

Because the Rangers signed a veteran closer, Joe Nathan, to take over for Feliz, there’s no debate as to Feliz’s role. He’s a starter, period.

The Red Sox traded for Andrew Bailey, who got hurt; and Mark Melancon, who they don’t trust; and they’re trying Alfredo Aceves as the closer now in a desperation maneuver that’s probably not going to work.

With the Rangers depth in the starting rotation and inexpensive signing of Nathan, they don’t have to concern themselves with perception. The Red Sox don’t have that luxury in either area, so they’re going to endure constant demands to put Bard where he “belongs”.

There’s a dichotomy of purpose in Boston. On one hand, the players, coaching staff and manager want Bard to do well in whatever role he’s in; on the other, they might want to see him do badly enough as a starter that the front office has no choice but to sign off on the move that the on-field staff wants to make and switch him to the bullpen to insert veteran Aaron Cook into the starting rotation.

And don’t think Cook isn’t watching and waiting for his opportunity; if that means he’s silently hoping that Bard pitches poorly as a starter, so be it.

Cook pitched well in his first start for Pawtucket.

Bard’s work last night complicates matters and every game the Red Sox play—and every start Cook makes in Triple A—will be relevant to how the team moves forward.

All will try to twist the results in the direction they prefer and their agendas will lead them; but if Bard keeps pitching as he did last night, there’s not going to be an obvious answer. A decision will have to be made and they’re going to have to stick to it.

It’s not going to be simple one way or the other.

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With Bailey Out, Bard May Wind Up Closing

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Red Sox intended closer Andrew Bailey’s thumb surgery is set to cost him a large chunk of the season.

The Red Sox didn’t give up a ton to get Bailey and the decision to let Jonathan Papelbon go and replace him with someone younger and cheaper was one of the few things the club did this past winter that was in line with their original organizational theory hatched during the early years of Theo Epstein’s tenure: don’t overpay for saves.

That led to the hackneyed “bullpen by committee” in 2003 which likely cost them the World Series; and they were set to do it again in 2007 before Papelbon went to management and asked to be placed back in the bullpen.

But they altered the plot when they signed Keith Foulke for 2004 and left Papelbon where he belonged in 2007—in the bullpen.

The Red Sox won the World Series in both cases.

There’s a similar dynamic now with Daniel Bard.

They’re not identical, but similar.

Papelbon was being given an audition as a starter in the spring of 2007 and the Red Sox didn’t bother to go out and get a legitimate closer in the previous off-season so the hovering question was: if not Papelbon, then who?

Papelbon had saved 35 games as a rookie in 2006, so the Red Sox knew he could do it; Bard has struggled in his few auditions as a replacement closer and is now being tried as a starter in the face of organizational debate as to what his role should be.

In 2007, the Red Sox had the starting pitching depth to shift Papelbon back to the bullpen; now they can’t say the same with Bard.

They need him as a starter and they kindasorta have someone who’s closed before with Mark Melancon.

But a team with championship aspirations and two highly inexperienced starting pitchers in Bard and Felix Doubront backing their rotation shouldn’t feel comfortable with their circumstances.

It’s either keep Bard in the rotation and try Melancon as the closer for awhile to see what happens or move Bard to the bullpen, use Alfredo AcevesAaron Cook, Vicente Padilla and/or wait until Daisuke Matsuzaka comes back.

There have been renewed entreaties for the Red Sox to sign Roy Oswalt, but Oswalt’s not going to be ready to go until May and by then the team should have a gauge on where they are in the standings, on the field, with who they have and what they need.

Bard didn’t pitch particularly well as a starter in the spring and with the aforementioned wonderment as to his optimal role, there’s a chance that he could make a start or two in the regular season and be sent back to the bullpen to close.

The options are not dazzling, but the Red Sox may not have much of a choice.

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Oswalt Overkill and Desperation

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In the category of unsubstantiated rumors of the day, the Angels are supposedly the “frontrunners” for fussy free agent righty Roy Oswalt and the Red Sox are thinking about moving Daniel Bard back to the bullpen.

Or not in both cases.

If there’s a grain of truth in the rumors, they’re connected to one another in what should happen.

Of course that has nothing to do with what will happen.

First, with the Angels and Oswalt, do the Angels need another name starter? Are they going to use whatever money it costs—even if the template for Oswalt’s contract is the Andy Pettitte deal with the Yankees—to bolster an overwhelming strength in the starting rotation?

With an innings-eating front four of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana, the Angels will be perfectly fine with Jerome Williams (who pitched quite well last season) as their fifth starter. In spite of the acquisition of Albert Pujols and what appears to be an overabundance of bats with too few positions to go around, the offense is still shaky with Vernon Wells a black hole; Bobby Abreu whining his way out of town; and the unknown of Kendrys Morales.

As of right now, the only true offensive guarantee they have is Pujols.

The bullpen may need boosting during the season as well. Are they intent on spending the money they have left now on a player they really don’t need in Oswalt?

Why?

Oswalt’s had multiple injuries in recent years and wouldn’t be ready to pitch until May.

And they don’t need him.

It makes no sense.

On the other hand, there’s one destination that makes sense for Oswalt, where he would be a need and not overkill—the Red Sox.

Another rumor that made the rounds this weekend (and was only reported as a possibility in one place—link) is that the Red Sox have seen enough of Bard in the starting rotation and he’ll be shifted back to the bullpen.

There are numerous possibilities surrounding this revelation if it’s true. The Red Sox could be dropping a rock into the water to see the ripples it causes in the public and media; perhaps they wanted to pressure Bard into pitching better in his next start (which was yesterday) after the story came out. His results were similar to what he’s done all spring—not particularly good—but manager Bobby Valentine made it a point to say he liked Bard’s demeanor better than he had in prior starts.

What that means for the future is anyone’s guess.

The Red Sox are not in a position to be putting Bard back in the bullpen. If they do that and move Alfredo Aceves to the starting rotation, they’ll be trading one problem for another. Aceves is not durable enough to be a 180-200 inning starter and he’s too valuable and versatile in the bullpen to start. If they determine that Bard can’t start, their only real option is Oswalt. Apart from that, they’re going to be in bigger trouble that I thought. And bear in mind that I picked them to go 81-81 this year. If Bard is unable to be at least a serviceable starter and they’re relegated to using castoffs in the number 4 and 5 slots in the rotation, they’re in trouble. A lot of it.

Oswalt would be their only choice and the same issues that make him a questionable fit for the Angels would make him a desperation shot for the Red Sox. If they continue down this line of thought, desperation might be all they have left.

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Far more in depth analysis is in my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide, now available.

If anyone has already purchased the book and noticed there were formatting mistakes, they’ve been fixed and republished; so you can re-download the book.

Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. (This sample is of the Rangers.) My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Analyzing the Red Sox-A’s Trade

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Athletics trade RHP Andrew Bailey and OF Ryan Sweeney to the Red Sox for OF Josh Reddick, minor league 1B Miles Head and minor league RHP Raul Alcantara.

For the Red Sox:

After trading for Mark Melancon and claiming to be comfortable with him as their closer, the Red Sox were still loitering around Ryan Madson and Francisco Cordero and trying to trade for Bailey and Gio Gonzalez.

They needed a legitimate closer and starting help. With the trades for Melancon and Bailey, they accomplished both.

In a more understated fashion than the Rangers maneuver of signing Joe Nathan and shifting closer Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation, the Red Sox are going to attempt something similar with Daniel Bard. Bard was a starter in the minors, struggled when given the chance to close and had a brief slump at the end of the 2011 season as the set-up man that cost the club dearly during their September collapse. He’s 26 and in the same vein of limiting his innings as a starter, the Red Sox were able to build up his tolerance without indulging in the damaging charade the Yankees did with Joba Chamberlain; as he enters his prime years, Bard will be able to give them 180 innings and slowly build until he’s a legitimate, 200+ inning starter.

Of course, that’s contingent on him being good at it. Bard has a power fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s; a slider and a changeup—there’s no reason to think he won’t transition well to the rotation.

I wouldn’t trust Melancon as my closer. Bailey is a two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year who throws strikes, doesn’t allow many homers and strikes out around a batter-per-inning; the only concern with him is his troublesome elbow, but for two low-level minor leaguers and an extra outfielder, he’s worth it as a far cheaper alternative to the free agents that are still on the market.

Sweeney is two years older than Reddick (almost to the day) and is an up-the-middle/opposite field hitter who might benefit from the Green Monster. Reddick is better defensively and Sweeney is a more proven big league player.

As a win-now team with a new, veteran manager and clubhouse loaded with veterans, the two minor leaguers the Red Sox surrendered weren’t going to help this current group, so it made sense to deal them.

For the Athletics:

I went into detail about Billy Beane’s latest rebuild in my last posting.

Strategy aside, the return for Bailey seems a bit short. Two low-level minor leaguers for an in-demand, All Star closer? Elbow problems or not, the A’s could’ve held out and waited to see if something better came along.

Head will be 21 in May and is reminiscent of the return to the Moneyball storyline of slightly out-of-shape players who hit for power and get on base. He was a 26th round draft pick in 2009.

Alcantara has good numbers in the low minors, but he just turned 19.

Who knows?

Neither is close to the big leagues.

Reddick is an extra player who might blossom if given the opportunity to play regularly. He’s shown good pop in the minors and some speed. Truthfully, what difference does it make to the A’s whether they play Reddick every day and he turns out to be better suited as a fourth outfielder? Other than to raid them for veteran, mid-season help, no one’s paying much attention to them anyway.

This trade suits the purposes of both sides although at first glance the advantage goes to the Red Sox. The Red Sox get their closer; the A’s clear out another veteran for the future (somewhere off in the distance, presumably in San Jose).

On the “ridiculous analysis” front, in this posting on CBS Sports, Jon Heyman said the following:

All in all, this was new Red Sox GM Ben Cherington’s finest moment as GM(…)

Um. Yeah. I tend to agree. After being on the job a little over two months, it’s his finest moment just ahead of getting a new chair for his office and not drooling on himself during dinner at the winter meetings.

Bravo.

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