A year ago, the Red Sox boasted one of the AL’s better set-up men. Daniel Bard tossed 73 innings in 2001, posting a nice 3.33 ERA with outstanding peripherals that included a razor thin 0.96 WHIP and 9.1 K/9. A year before that he was even better, compiling a 1.93 ERA across 74.2 innings. Bard provided a reliable late-inning option that bridged the gap between the rotation and Jonathan Papelbon; while he may not have been closing himself, he helped make sure that leads made it to the ninth intact.
Good bullpen arms might be the least appreciated tool in baseball. Closers tend to get the bulk of the attention when it comes to relief, but saves are merely an artificial construct with no more importance than the overlooked “hold”. Bard was Boston’s hold man, and his electric stuff reflected his potential to potentially assume a ninth-inning role somewhere down the line.
Then the club decided to tinker with his future.
Back when Boston announced this move it seemed to carry a lot of risk and relatively low odds of success. Bard’s professional career lacked any evidence that he’d make a good starter, and with so much uncertainty in the bullpen following Papelbon’s departure the team was taking the chance of befouling both its rotation and its relief.
Although he was an obvious health risk coming into his deal, Andrew Bailey’s damaging injury and the resulting time missed were still hard to predict. Ditto for Mark Melancon’s meltdown, an ERA near 50.00 that sent him to Pawtucket. Those two trades, which cost the team Josh Reddick and Jed Lowrie, have looked downright awful thus far, though Bailey is finally getting close to making his Boston debut.
As an aside, how much do the Sox miss Reddick right now, with the outfield in a shambles? How hard is it to watch Lowrie hitting well in Houston, knowing the infield has only Nick Punto to fall back on?
Moving Bard into the rotation not only necessitated that he adapt to an entriely new role, but also that those replacing him in relief filled in adequately. Neither has happened. Instead the outcome has been fairly disastrous and completely foreseeable; in an attempt to stretch himself Bard has lost his effectiveness.
He may have been “just” a set-up man, but four good outs at a key point in the game beat a 5.24 ERA any day.
Only three of Bard’s eleven outings have yielded quality starts. He enduring a bloated 1.62 WHIP and has more walks (37) than strikeouts (34). This from a guy who once blew batters out of the box with his power pitches. There was nothing to suggest that Bard would make a good starter, and the fact that he hasn’t practically demands that this experiment come to an end. Boston could certainly benefit by shoring up its bullpen, and there other options for the rotation. Not attractive options necessarily, but keeping Bard out there isn’t doing any good either.
Instead of simply pulling the plug and converting him back to a reliever, the Sox sent Bard to AAA in what feels like an unfair demotion. Yes, he’s failed (for the most part). But the club put him in a position to do so.
Still, a brief change of venue might be appropriate as a way of hitting the reset button. Bard could have headed to Rhode Island, gotten his head right, made a few bullpen appearances and dominated some minor-league hitting. That would have gotten him prepared to resume his old life.
However, Peter Abraham reported that Bard will remain a starter while with the PawSox, spoiling what might have been a sensible adjustment.
It’s not as if the Red Sox have an embarrassment of riches on the mound. Their aces continue to get knocked around far more than they should. This isn’t a club with the pitching strength or depth to allow them to give Bard-the-starter endless slack. How long will the Sox persist in pushing this change? With little rationale for doing it in the first place, it seems like now would be a good time to cut losses.
Could Bard turn things around? Sure. But when, and with what consequences?