Daniel Bard hasn't been a starter for years, but the Red Sox are now relying on him, both now and for the future. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
The Opening Day rotation for the Red Sox is set, and it will be Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard joining Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz as starters. While these opportunities are a victory for both Bard and Doubront -- the former converted from relief, and the latter getting his second chance to start after a disappointing 2011 -- success in the roles could have a significant impact on the direction of the Red Sox for the next few years.
Clay Buchholz isn't the only starting pitcher the Red Sox have developed over the last few seasons, but he's the only one that remains with the Red Sox. Justin Masterson was part of the 2009 Victor Martinez trade, and while the Red Sox have reportedly attempted to reacquire him, it hasn't worked out. Before that, Anibal Sanchez was part of the Josh Beckett swap. It's been six years since that deal, but Sanchez is still just 28 years old (the same age as Jon Lester), and would likely still be under team control with the Red Sox as he is with the Marlins. Jonathan Papelbon was also a starter, but he was converted to relief. Not that there's anything to regret about that switch.
In order to make up for the lack of pitching coming up through the system, the Red Sox focused on bringing in high-risk, high-reward starters (John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla, etc.), and flexed their financial muscle to bring in high-priced free agent hurlers (Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey). The porous 2009 Red Sox defense didn't help the hittable Smoltz and Penny, and injuries have wracked the Boston careers of Matsuzaka and Lackey. Padilla and Cook have their own injury issues that have made them available at a low cost to begin with, so it's no guarantee they can go through the rigors of a 200 inning campaign: they might be better off as Plan B then as The Plan, especially since they will either fail and be a pointless endeavor for 2013, or succeed and force the Red Sox to find the next iteration of their inexpensive ilk.
The Red Sox aren't lacking in pitching prospects, but they all have their own questions or schedules that don't line up with the team's 2012 needs. The top starters in the system, Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes, are about to start at Double-A and haven't pitched professionally, respectively. Drake Britton and Stolmy Pimentel can barely find the strike zone, never mind a path to the majors. The flattening of Michael Bowden's curve caused his prospect status to vanish, much like that pitch has from his repertoire. Alex Wilson's 2011 was encouraging, but, much like Kyle Weiland before him, we're not quite sure whether his future is at the back of a rotation or in relief.
There was a definite gap in pitchers coming from the minors thanks to the absence of Masterson, and it occurred in a year where the Red Sox had to deal with losing out on both Lackey and Matsuzaka to Tommy John surgery, as well as a new collective bargaining agreement that made limitless spending a negative in the future.
Bard and Doubront could fix a lot of the above issues. In short, their success would make for a rotation with four former Red Sox farmhands in it, putting to rest the idea that this organization has trouble developing starting pitchers. The Rays might have five (and then some) starters from their farm, but they're abnormal among contending teams. The Rangers have built much of their rotation through trades and international signings, the Angels signed C.J. Wilson and traded for Dan Haren to assist the homegrown Jered Weaver, the Tigers dealt for both Max Scherzer and Doug Fister, and the Yankees have had far more trouble with most of their homegrown pitchers than they've had success.
Bard was briefly on track to be a starter, before struggles and the needs of the Red Sox put him on the path to the bullpen. A lack of bullpen depth has been an issue for the last few years, and one can imagine how much worse things would have been had Bard not made the initial switch from starting to relieving in order to fast-track him to the bigs and give someone besides Jonathan Papelbon an important inning of relief work. Doubront was meant to be the first starter up from Pawtucket in 2011, should something happen to one of the scheduled starting five. When that need arose, he was busy working back from coming to camp out of shape, as well as a tender elbow. In shape as he should have been before, Doubront has pitched more like the arm they thought they had last year, the one coming off of a successful 2010 campaign as a 22-year-old in Triple-A and the majors.
It's not out of the question that these two will succeed as starting pitchers in the majors. Bard's profile matches up well with other relief-to-starting converts, and manager Bobby Valentine and the front office have liked what they have seen from Bard this spring as he gained more experience in the role. Faith surrounding Doubront's future as a starter wasn't hard to find just one year ago, and with potentially less-harmful mechanics and better health in tow, there's little reason to doubt him anymore now than before. He's just 24, and has had his development slowed by health troubles and command inconsistencies those new mechanics are meant to address.
Bard has four years of team control left, and Doubront at least five. Neither are finished products as major-league starters as of today, but if they improve enough to stick in the role, then Boston has secured not just a sound present-day for their rotation, but also a future. The two will be relatively inexpensive compared to the starters of the free agent market, and, as mentioned, would help dispel the idea that Boston can't find pitching within their own system.
The low cost is the more significant bit, as Boston wants to -- and should want to -- be under the luxury tax threshold as soon as the 2013 season. Lowered penalties for spending, revenue-sharing rebate checks, and more money to spend on other needs as they pop up -- Jacoby Ellsbury is a free agent sooner than later -- are some of the key benefits that success from Bard and Doubront could bring, outside of the fact that the Red Sox would field a strong rotation from top to bottom. Their presence would also mean fewer holes to fill in the future, should Lester, Beckett, or both depart following the 2014 season when their contracts end.
Whether Bard's conversion or Doubront's latest chance work out remains to be seen. But the Red Sox are betting on more than just who can start in 2012 with these moves, giving themselves the opportunity to make a much larger and more significant shift for the team's future. The kind of shift that could help alleviate the need for winters like this one, where low-cost, risky options were all that was available to them, or ones like 2010, where a massive contract was handed out to a risky arm like Lackey's out of necessity. There's more riding on Bard and Doubront than just wins in 2012, but given their histories, the Red Sox have every right to give them this shot.