You might be inclined to say that the beginning of the end for Daniel Bard came when the front office attempted to convert him into a starting pitcher. That would be skipping out on an important detail, though, as Bard's issues began before then. In fact, his struggles in September, 2011 were a large part of the reason why many felt he wasn't ready for the job as team's closer. After all, in a month when the Red Sox needed him to thrive, Bard instead struggled with his command, and the Red Sox fell one game short of a playoff berth.
Bard walked nine batters in 11 innings of work in September, while allowing 40 percent of his inherited runners to score. Prior to that point, Bard had allowed just 10 percent of inherited runners to score, stranding the rest. It wasn't just other people's runners he let in, though, as Bard's ERA ballooned from 2.03 to 3.33 from those 11 frames, thanks to a 10.64 September ERA.
Starting didn't break Daniel Bard. It might not have helped the recovery process, but issues with his mechanics began months before that was even a potential role for him in 2012. There was even the idea that, with a starter's preparation rather than a reliever's, Bard might eventually grow the arm strength necessary to last an entire season at full strength, or what passes for it over the grind of a 162-game season. The previous two seasons, he had faltered late, either from overuse in a thin bullpen, or simply because he exceeded what his arm allowed. There were reasons this was a good experiment not just for a Red Sox rotation in need of assistance, but also for Bard, too.
After posting a 5.33 ERA through 10 starts that balanced flashes of excellence with outright awfulness, Bard was demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, a place he hadn't been to since the first half of the 2009 season. The plan was for Bard to simplify his mechanics, to get him back to where he was before even September occurred, before he muddied the picture with further tweaks. It's not that pitching coach Bob McClure wasn't capable of fixing him in the majors, but it was getting to the point where it wasn't clear the Red Sox could win with this iteration of Bard on the mound. To Pawtucket, where the games don't count in the same way, Bard was sent.
Time has proven their assessment prescient, as, in 27 appearances with the PawSox, Bard owns a 7.71 ERA, with 27 walks in 28 innings. Though there have been signs that Bard is returning to form, either through consistent showings in the mid-90s, or appearances without walks, there are also plenty of signs that things just aren't working for him. Take Tuesday night's contest, for example, as Bard walked four batters and allowed two runs without allowing a hit in one-third of a frame. This followed an appearance three days earlier, in which Bard allowed three runs on three hits and a strikeout in an inning of work.
Bard is now 27 years old, and it's not clear if there's a future for him in relief in the Red Sox bullpen, never mind trying to let him start ever again. Something happened to him, mentally or physically, and it's a bigger thing than just a conversion to starting. The signs were there before that something was amiss, but with the season's end in 2011 came the reinforcement that it was simply a poor month from an otherwise excellent arm. After seeing months of work in the majors and now against minor-league competition, though, is it truly that simple?
Does Bard need a fresh start elsewhere? Are the coaches here, who have improved the lot of others like Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales, and Clayton Mortensen just not reaching Bard? That's all the kind of stuff we can't prove for sure until it becomes more than a hypothetical scenario. With the bullpen depth the Red Sox have built up in the majors and minors, they can afford to package Bard somewhere else to a club that believes he can be salvaged. Even if he's just a reliever, Bard has three years of team control left to him, and the 2012 season didn't hike his price up any. If Boston can package Bard in a deal that nets them help in an area of need -- starting pitching, for instance -- is that something they should do?
While it might seem like selling low on Bard, there are two things to consider. There never was a sell-high time for Bard, as he was successful in his role (nearly) to the end and it was believed that switching him to starting could turn him into an average or better hurler, something the Red Sox were in dire need of. It's not as if Boston missed out on a time to deal him, as the lone scenarios were and are to sell on him now, before things get worse or stay the same, or sit on him in the hopes that the Bard of old, or some semblance of him, returns. Both sides have their obvious positives and negatives -- Bard could improve, or he could not -- and both are worth discussing.
Bard could simplify his mechanics with an off-season to dwell on and study them. This could result in Bard maintaining his velocity consistently, spotting his fastball, and getting the sharp bite and placement on his slider that he needs, when he needs it. Bard could also think too much on the matter, as he reportedly has already, and screw his career into the ground even further than it already is. Should the Red Sox absorb the risk in these scenarios, or is it better to send him packing, and hope the return makes it worth it, should he return to form?