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Talk about fifth spot already has started

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 6, 2012
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Felix Doubront, Andrew Miller, Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla, and Alfredo Aceves plead the fifth.

They want to be the fifth starter in the Red Sox rotation.

This assumes that Daniel Bard is the fourth starter, and that might be conjecture at this point.

Even though Aceves comes into camp with a leg up on the competition because he asked to start and the team has allowed him to prepare as a starter, that doesn’t mean he will win the job. With Aceves, the question is where does the team need him the most?

Aceves was Boston’s best reliever last season, and yes, that includes Jonathan Papelbon, who had his best season as a closer.

So here we are in spring training 2012 and the Red Sox have lost arguably the best closer in the game in Papelbon, taken a very effective setup man in Bard and put him in the rotation, and are flirting with their jack of all trades, Aceves, in a starting role?

And Bobby Jenks, an experienced closer, will miss part of the summer after back surgery.

That leaves the Sox with two new acquisitions at the back of the bullpen, two-time All-Star Andrew Bailey, who was acquired from the A’s, and Mark Melancon, a former Yankee, who closed for the Astros last season.

Bailey has had two straight injury-riddled seasons (2010 and 2011) and started camp with a lat strain. Melancon, who was once thought of as Mariano Rivera’s replacement, goes from the 106-loss Astros to the Red Sox. Can both relievers make up for the loss of Papelbon and Bard in those roles?

With that uncertainty, it appears Aceves would be best suited to stay put. He has incentives in his one-year, $1.2 million deal for starts and relief appearances, a sign the team had no idea what role he would play.

Both Bard and Aceves know starting is the preferred role because it’s where the biggest payday could come.

If Bard stays in the rotation and Aceves moves back to his seventh-inning role, the Sox still have some interesting, but certainly not slam-dunk, options.

On the fifth starter, Sox manager Bobby Valentine said yesterday, “It’s just too early right now to sort through that. There’s good competition for that job, and we’ll see how everybody throws. I’m not sure that’s a decision that has to be made really soon. We’ll let it play out as long as we can and take a look at what our best combinations are for the bullpen and for the starting rotation.’’

Other candidates for the fifth starting position:

1. Doubront - He appears to be the top choice because he’s an organizational kid who has shown great promise as a starter, but a combination of injuries and being out of shape have curtailed his development. He’s out of options, but he’s a 24-year-old hard-throwing lefthander who could be an impact starter in the majors. The Sox won’t let him go through waivers because he would be claimed immediately. “He’s had a good camp and looked good to our people,’’ Valentine said.

2. Miller - He’s a major tease, but what is not to like about his fastball velocity and his overall stuff? When you see his stuff you think 20-game winner. He’s also a smart guy who may be over-thinking everything. His problems likely always will be with him. The mechanical flaws in his delivery could be because of his height (6 feet 7 inches), and he doesn’t have the command of his pitches to make him a 30-start, dominating starter. He also is out of options, so the Sox will watch him over five starts in spring training and hope something will click with pitching coach Bob McClure. McClure basically has told him to go back to do doing all the things he did when he pitched at North Carolina. Miller has been shown plenty of video of the old days, and the hope is he returns to the carefree kid who threw the ball through the catcher’s mitt.

3. Cook - This veteran righthander is trying to resurrect his career that has been riddled by injuries. When he was good with the Rockies, he was very good. He’s a sinkerballer with toughness that teams need in that No. 5 spot. He’s determined to show he can be that pitcher again. He’s reunited with McClure, his former minor league pitching coach in Colorado. “I felt this was the best opportunity for me,’’ Cook said. “There are openings here and I feel if I pitch the way I can, I have a good chance here.’’

4. Padilla - If it’s about stuff, toughness, and nastiness, end the competition right here. Padilla has all of those things, including his trick eephus pitch. We know his past and his present. He recently was detained in his native Nicaragua for not paying child support for his 10th child. He was kicked off the Rangers for conduct detrimental to the team. He has pitched some gems, including an NLCS victory for the Dodgers over the Phillies in 2009. “He seems to show up a lot on our video that we put together for our pitchers whether it’s a good pitch, or a good fielding play, whatever. He’s an interesting guy to watch. He throws that eephus pitch effectively. Not sure I want to see it too much, but he’s not afraid to throw it anytime,’’ Valentine said.

5. Surprises - The Sox could get lucky and land Roy Oswalt or make a deal for Chicago’s Gavin Floyd.

There’s also Ross Ohlendorf, who has experience as a major league starter. He is in camp and although he’s slightly behind because of back trouble, he might get into the mix. The Sox also have veteran starter Carlos Silva and Brandon Duckworth in camp.

Valentine doesn’t even know if Bard is his fourth starter because the manager has no idea if Bard can pitch from the windup and throw a third pitch consistently.

It appears this competition will go pretty late and we’ll likely see different leaders emerging. This is never easy for the people competing, but this is what all of them signed on for.

A few Sox players would love to see Aceves take the job and keep it. They feel he would be the most consistent of the lot, knowing he would give a solid effort every time out. It comes down to how deep Boston’s bullpen will be toward the end of camp.

For now, they are all making a case for the fifth.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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