It's that time of the off-season, the time when boys become men, men become boys (likely due to over-medication), and more germane to this article, the first steps in roster construction are being taken across the major leagues. Yesterday, the Texas Rangers became the second team to sign a big name relief pitcher when they inked former Twin Joe Nathan to close for the next two seasons.
The Rangers signing of Nathan paves the way for current closer Neftali Feliz to move to the starting rotation (according to MLB Trade Rumors). Feliz has never started a regular season game in the big leagues before, but he started 54 out of the 80 minor league games he appeared in during parts of four minor league seasons. Since joining the Rangers in 2009, he's appeared in 154 games, all in relief and, had Ron Washington had his way, all consecutively.
Moving Feliz brings it's own set of questions, but even so, one doesn't have to squint very hard to see why Texas is doing it. It is much easier to find a good reliever than a good starter, and that goes double in this market, even now with Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon signed. Also, and this should not to be ignored pouring over the calculus of this decision, the Rangers will save money. Lots of filthy filthy delicious money. How much depends on what their other specific options were but, for some reference, Feliz made a hair under $460 thousand last season. He has a year left of team control before he can enter arbitration, meaning the Rangers will essentially assign him a salary for the 2012 season. He might make a million this season and he might not. If he does well he could make $3 million next season. Add that to Nathan's salary and the Rangers just filled both the closer role and a rotation spot for the next two years for about $18 million. Compare that to the Phillies who just spent $25 million on the closer role alone over that same time period.
You may not have noticed the word Red or Sox* yet. But don't worry, OTM, you will. You... will... /Yoda
*Is Sox a word?
With two thirds of the rotation recovering from major surgery, the Red Sox**, like the Rangers, are looking for starting pitching. With a $131 million payroll before any arbitration eligible players or free agents are signed, this isn't a re-building year for Boston. There is still a budget, massive as it may be, and with that much money already on the books, the wise spending of whatever remains should be and surely is a priority.
**See?! Told you!
A few weeks ago in OTM's Armchair GM series, we OTM writers attempted, for your reading pleasure, to outline the off season plans we believed the Red Sox should follow. Just about everyone made resigning Erik Bedard a part of their plan. Sure, Bedard is a pretty good pitcher when he's healthy, and he spent the last part of the season in Boston so there is presumably interest in him, but I think the idea to retain Bedard was even simpler than that. Though I don't believe any of us said it, Bedard was an easy answer to a hard question. How do you fill two rotation slots, re-sign the All Star closer and All Franchise DH, and all without blowing the budget to hell? One easy way to at least begin to accomplish all that is re-sign the guy who was just here, was good (when healthy) and probably won't cost too much.
The underlying idea to all this is that finding starting pitching is hard and finding good starting pitching is very hard. The Red Sox are in a difficult position. They have to fill a large hole in the rotation and, unlike us here at OTM, they have to do it for real. Bedard may not want to pitch in Boston. Billy Beane may not want to give up Gio Gonzalez and C.J. Wilson very well might receive a stronger offer. There aren't many sure things here.
All this leads me to a solution to the Red Sox difficult-to-fill needs: Daniel Bard. Like Feliz, Bard has extensive time as a starter in his past. But also like Feliz, Bard hasn't started in a long time. Bard last started a game in 2007 for Lancaster, California in high A ball. Feliz started 13 games for AAA Oklahoma City in 2009, so the comparison isn't perfect, or as any scout would tell you, even close. Still, the point remains (I think... I'll let you decide how true that is), Daniel Bard is an easy answer to that difficult question. In fact, he's even easier*** than bringing back Bedard. The Red Sox could unilaterally tell Bard he will start and set about helping him prepare to do so.
***When I say 'easy' I'm talking in front office terms. The field staff would probably disagree with the use of that word. You don't make a decision like moving Daniel Bard to the starting rotation without consulting with coaches though, so we can assume that if the decision is made it was made in conjunction with coaches who feel it is possible for the move to work.
There are other concerns here that I haven't brought up. For example, can Bard handle the innings load? What happens to the closer or set-up man role? Those are important concerns, but they are less important if the Red Sox suddenly have a young effective starter in their rotation.
Building a good major league roster is not dissimilar from fitting together a complicated and always changing puzzle. Depending on how GM Ben Cherington decides to proceed, moving Daniel Bard to the rotation might not make sense. Or it might. It's just one possibility in the complex puzzle that is assembling a rotation.