This past March, the Red Sox entered spring training with a whole lot of pitchers and no real idea where to put them. The rotation or the bullpen? Boston or Pawtucket? On the 40-man, or on waivers? An inventive approach to the construction of the staff in a penny-pinching offseason led the Sox to explore role changes for numerous arms, leading to a competition that-combined with a few unfortunate injuries along the way-resulted in Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront heading to the rotation, and Alfredo Aceves taking over as a closer.
Whether we agree with it or not, we know the explanation behind the now-failed Bard experiment, and Felix Doubront was hardly a shocker. After all, the Sox needed to use him or lose him, and his short-lived conversion to relief was undertaken out of necessity; he had always been on a starting path in the minors.
What was confusing was the decision to use Alfredo Aceves as the closer. Aceves' value in 2011 had come largely from his ability to throw multiple innings, going deep in games when starters couldn't and sparing the best parts of the bullpen from overexertion while still keeping the Sox in the game. The one lockdown inning had never been his forte.
And yet, now he's looking like maybe he was destined for the shorter role all along.
It's impossible to pretend that Aceves has been outstanding in the closer role so far. With a 4.42 ERA and three blown saves-Jonathan Papelbon blew three over the entire course of 2011-Aceves has had his growing pains. Still, when you look at how it's actually happened, there are two awful games at the beginning of the year, and after that a pretty good run. With relievers, any one bad outing can really kill a season, but since allowing five runs to the Yankees in that terrible disaster of a game, Aceves has provided 33 innings of 2.67 ERA ball, going 13-1 in those (not-at-) all-important save opportunities.
The real sign for Aceves, though, is how different he is as a short-outing reliever. Even last year, Aceves' performance seemed entirely untenable. He was frequently wild, and seemed to simply get out of situations time and again, stranding some 80% of baserunners. We've seen Daisuke do that before, we know it doesn't work long-term. Aceves was a guy who needed to make a change or prove an exception to the rule if he was really going to stick.
Well, we've seen that change, and while the ERA isn't great, the signs are. As a short-order reliever, Aceves has new life on everything he throws, and it's shining through in his peripherals. His 9.57 K/9 is a full 3.3 higher than in his career through 2011, and his 12.4% swinging strike rate is more than half again his rate from last year. These are things that, if maintained, should have Aceves looking the closer in his results as well.
But much of this we've covered before. What's interesting is that, over the past couple of weeks, the Sox may have stumbled upon another pitcher who was out of place: Franklin Morales.
It's a bit premature to be heralding Morales as the next coming of...well, I suppose it would be Felix Doubront given his contributions to the team so far. Still, after two starts and two longer outings out of the pen, the Sox have to wonder if maybe they've got something here.
Unlike Aceves, Morales can of course not be expected to throw harder as a starter. Instead, what's so impressive is Morales' ability to maintain velocity, throwing in the mid-90s for his entire 86-pitch outing against the Braves, and with enough tail on them that 41 of 56 were classified as two-seamers.
Unlike Aceves, however, there is precedent for Morales as a starter. After all, before 2008 he was ranked as the 8th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America-as a starter. While he'd always had some difficulty with control, Morales really only fell apart when he reached the high elevations of Colorado Springs and Denver, and we all know what the air up there can do to pitchers.
Since joining the Red Sox in 2011, Morales has had none of the problems he had in Colorado. His strikeout rates are at an all-time high, and his walk rates at an all-time low. Despite facing more difficult competition in the American League East, he's improved his ERA in by 1.5 runs, and over his last four outings, thrown 18 innings, striking out 24 and allowing just one walk.
There may be some resistance to a Morales conversion given what just happened with Bard, but it's worth considering that converting Morales to a reliever didn't work for Colorado. He still had high ERAs with terrible peripherals coming out of the bullpen in Colorado, with his best performance being a 3.86 ERA with an 11:8 K:BB ratio in the first half of the year the Red Sox traded for him. The change in Morales correlates not with his change in roles, but his change in scenery. And given that he was on the path to being an intriguing starter before he went to Colorado Springs way back when, there's a lot of reason to think he might be an intriguing starter now, even ignoring these last few appearances.
Amazingly enough, thanks to injuries, the Sox may have succeeded in finding by chance the perfect fits for round holes they were hoping to fill with square pegs.