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On Daniel Bard and Panic Moves

The fiery gaze of a man who deserves a couple of starts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
The fiery gaze of a man who deserves a couple of starts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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In 2007, the Red Sox embarked on an experiment. After several years of solid to above-average offensive production from the second-base spot, they turned over the starting job to a rookie. Dustin Pedroia, who'd not shown enough range to make it as a shortstop, was the fourth-ranked Sox prospect on Baseball America's Top 100 in '06 (behind Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, and Craig Hansen). The experiment was a colossal failure. With April's games in the books, the untested second baseman had scuffled his way to a pathetic .182/.308/.236 line. Pedroia was booted back down to the minors, and veteran Alex Cora was called upon to fill the second base position until a better option could be discovered through trade. Pedroia stayed in Pawtucket until July, when he was traded, along with SP Kason Gabbard, to the Texas Rangers for Eric Gagne.

When asked why the Sox had pulled the plug on Pedroia's stint in the majors so quickly, GM Theo Epstein cited the demands of a championship-caliber franchise. "Our goal as a ballclub is to make it to the World Series. Getting sub-par production at a position as critical as second base isn't something conducive to winning in this division. I believe in Dustin's potential, but after the last few seasons, we don't have the luxury of letting him figure things out in the majors. After two straight unhappy endings, we owe it to our fans to win now."

Or so it might have gone were the Sox run by the people who write about them for a living. Pedroia, of course, recovered from his early slump to win Rookie of the Year, followed it up with an MVP, and grew (metaphorically, at least) into the best second baseman in baseball. He got that opportunity because the people running the team understood a basic truth about the major-league game: there are 162 games, and making roster-shaking decisions based on one series, one week, or even one month is ill-advised.

Yet here we are, three games in, and the cry goes up from Bangor to Stamford: "Put Daniel Bard in at closer!" Because that will fix it.

The Red Sox, as you may have heard, are stumbling out of the gate again. They lost a nailbiter on Thursday when Mark Melancon and Alfredo Aceves combined to blow a save. They got pummeled on Saturday. And yesterday, the offense finally woke up, only to watch Aceves blow it in the 9th, followed by Melancon losing it in the 11th. Clearly the bullpen is completely broken, and only the return of reliever extraordinaire Daniel Bard can fix it. The fate of the 2012 Red Sox hinges on the arm of the 26-year-old righty. And that's why they should keep him in the rotation.

First, let's look at the actual situation here, so we can understand the "crisis" facing the Boston Red Sox bullpen. On Thursday, Vicente Padilla gave up a triple, and the runner scored on a Prince Fielder sac fly. Next inning, Melancon gave up two singles and got pulled, then Aceves hit a batter and gave up another single. (By the way, anyone who thought Valentine had too quick a hook on Melancon, but wants Bard back in the pen, go look up "logical consistency.") Bad inning? Sure. Hardly a disaster.

Yesterday, of course, was worse. Facing the heart of the Tigers order in the 9th, Aceves allowed two baserunners, then a home run to Miguel Cabrera. In the 11th, facing the same heart of the order, Melancon got slapped around by Cabrera, Fielder, and finally Alex Avila. Might Bard have done better against those elite hitters? Sure, maybe. But if we're going to rearrange pitchers' roles because Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder lit them up, it's going to be a mighty confusing year for fantasy players. Elite hitters are going to hit. If Melancon and Aceves can't deal with Tampa's 7-8-9 hitters this weekend, then we can start to panic.

Along those same lines, know who else got tuned up by the Tigers this weekend? Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz. Clearly they're both unable to start. We should call up Aaron Cook and Ross Ohlendorf and stick Beckett and Buchholz on the bench where they won't blow any leads. Unless we're deciding, based on their track records, that this isn't a big enough sample size to tell us anything. Beckett and Buchholz each gave up seven runs in less than five innings, and no one's talking about demoting them. If we're willing to let them settle into their roles, and not judge them based on one lousy start against a good offense, why doesn't the relief corps get the same courtesy? Of course, maybe you think the Sox should give up on them, in which case you're just beyond all help and should go watch the Celtics. (This situation may be making me slightly bitter.)

Adding to the whole thing, we have the media, who've never been overly enamored of the transition of Bard to the rotation. Innovation is scary, dontcha know, and this whole thing is probably just some silly math thing that Bill James and Carmine came up with between Starcraft sessions. Not helping matters is Sox manager Bobby Valentine, who has continued his fascinating if utterly maddening habit of answering reporters honestly when they ask him questions. The excellent Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk put it perfectly:

[Valentine] is one of those guys who is smart enough to see that empty cliches are not a meaningful form of communication, but not smart enough to realize that there's a reason why managers use all of those empty cliches. Something will happen and Valentine will make the big mistake of saying something informative and interesting regarding his thoughts on the matter.

All through spring training, he did just that. Daniel Bard is new at starting, and looked shaky at times making the transition, and Valentine said so. He expressed confidence, and his criticisms were nuanced, but nuance doesn't sell papers. "Valentine Doubts Bard Transition" was the story all March. And now, with a weekend of shaky bullpenning, Valentine's been asked if Bard is an option at closer, and his response was "Might be." The proper response in the cliche handbook would have been "There's a long season ahead, and we're counting on him to start." But that's not how Bobby V operates. If there's an option on the table, he'll probably consider it. And worst of all, he'll tell you he's considering it.

The thing that's most insane about all of this, though, the thing that has me blowing past a thousand words without breaking a sweat? Daniel Bard's first start isn't until Tuesday night. This wouldn't be scrapping a failed experiment. It'd be deciding not to try it in the first place. We all know the numbers on the relative value of starters vs. relievers. If Bard is even a league-average starter this year, he'll be more valuable to the team than he would be as a shutdown reliever. Will he be a league-average starter? We don't know. Because he hasn't started a game yet.

Think of it as a trade. Would you be willing to trade Buchholz for Craig Kimbrel right now? What about Ohlendorf for Kimbrel? How about Aaron Cook for Kyle Farnsworth? Those are three entirely different trades, right? That first one sounds awful. The second, pretty darn good. The third one, at least worth considering, if you think the bullpen's a greater worry than rotation depth. Switching Bard to the bullpen could be the equivalent of any of those three trades. We simply don't know, because we don't know what "Daniel Bard, Starter" looks like yet.

If Bard has a few bad starts, and Aaron Cook keeps killing every worm in Pawtucket, sure, the Sox should call Cook up, stick Bard back in the pen and turn him loose to throw 15 100-mph lightning bolts a night. But to call the whole thing off because the Sox relief corps couldn't keep Detroit's new Bash Brothers in check isn't just dumb, it's an insult to Bard and the work he's done this winter.

Losing three games to the class of the AL Central in April doesn't worry me. Two blown saves in a weekend doesn't tell me anything about the underlying strength or weakness of the Red Sox organization. Making a stupid, panicky move based on those results, or to pacify an angry fanbase and vocal media, on the other hand, would tell me a lot. And it wouldn't tell me anything good.