Daniel Bard is right. He can't make eight guys in the bullpen better, but what he can do is provide relief that goes beyond pitching.
He can soothe the battered psyche of a baseball team and its fed-up fan base simply by being a familiar face performing in a familiar late-inning role.
Bard's return to a relief role was triumphant, both for him and the Red Sox last night in Minnesota, as Bobby V's Rock Bottom Band bounced back from a Hindenburg weekend by ending a five-game losing skid with a 6-5 victory. Bard entered a tie game in the eighth with one out and a runner on third. He didn't do anything spectacular, inducing a lineout to third and a popup to shortstop to end the inning, but you could hear an entire Nation exhale when he walked off the mound.
The obvious question is where do the Sox go from here? Do they act like nothing significant happened Monday night and allow Bard to make his regularly-scheduled start in Chicago on Friday? Or do they recognize that Bard is just the ballast a rudderless team and listing bullpen so desperately need?
What the Sox decide to do is going to provide keen insight into the culture and commitment to winning of the Red Sox in 2012.
If the reluctant reliever is returned to a starting role then the message is that nothing has really changed since last September for the Red Sox. They're still coddling and empowering players, like helicopter parents.
It obvious that Bard prefers to be a starter. It's obvious that general manager Ben Cherington has made assurances to Bard that he'll be given every opportunity to start, in part because Cherington recognizes the cost-efficient value Bard could provide in the rotation if he develops into a front-line starter.
But if the manager or the general manager being worried about offending, alienating or upsetting a player prevents him from doing what is in the best interests of the team, then the Red Sox' problems go much deeper than a raft of injuries to key players and poor pitching.
It speaks to an organizational fatal flaw of pandering and capitulating to players. It makes last September a painful flashpoint for a more pervasive issue.
The old bromide about a happy employee being a productive employee is true, and the Sox should want to create a welcoming work environment for their players, especially in this city. But at the end of the day, the players work for Valentine and Cherington, not the other way around.
If that fundamental work place hierarchy isn't established you end up with a pitching staff where guys get to choose their own role and their own receiver, even if it's to the overall detriment of the team. It sure seems like Josh Beckett has tabbed Kelly Shoppach as his personal catcher, so the red-hot Jarrod Saltalamacchia will likely take a seat Tuesday night against the Twins. Great.
Someone has to be the adult here -- and it's unfair to ask for it to be Bard -- and point out the obvious change of circumstances since the plan to make Bard a starter was approved. If not, the message that gets sent is either that satisfying a player's wishes are more important than the team's success, or that forced to make a choice, the Sox value long-term developmental and financial gain more than winning this year.
Either rationale is utterly disheartening.
If the decision is strictly a baseball one and has nothing to do with interpersonal fallout then it should be an easy one -- Bard goes back to the bullpen. Nothing undermines a team, a manager, and a season faster than an unreliable bullpen, as the Sox have witnessed.
Maybe Cherington and baseball operations remain convinced that Bard can be Jered Weaver. He has done nothing in his first two starts to be yanked from the rotation on performance. In an ideal world, we would all get to see how this Grand Experiment turns out. However, the experiment has now become a luxury the Sox simply can't afford.
It could be an opportunity for the Red Sox to resurrect another Grand Experiment though -- Bill Jamesian bullpen philosophy. In 2003, the Sox had the novel idea that using your best relief pitcher just in closer situations was an inefficient deployment of talent. This idea got boiled down to the ill-fated Closer-by-Committee calamity, but it was fundamentally about using your best reliever in the most important juncture in the game, which isn't always the ninth inning.
It wasn't last night. The most important juncture was the eighth, when Bard came in with the go-ahead run on third base and one out.
It could be more valuable to have Bard extinguish rallies than ring up saves. He is the only guy on the staff who has a proven track record doing that. Last year, he allowed just 5 of 34 inherited runners to score, 15 percent. For his career he has allowed 24 percent of inherited runners to score. The 2011 major league average was 30 percent.
Closer-by-default Alfredo Aceves allowed 38 percent of inherited runners to score last season and is at 34 percent for his career.
Franklin Morales, the presumptive eighth-inning guy, allowed 38 percent of inherited runners to score last season and 33 percent for his career. Vicente Padilla is at 35 percent for his career. The Sox bullpen has allowed 41 percent of inherited runners to score this season.
While it's always going to be necessary to have the defibrillator nearby when Aceves, who apparently attended the Heathcliff Slocumb School of Closing, is in a save situation, Bard doesn't have to collect saves to be the bullpen savior.
Plus, putting Bard in the bullpen permanently wouldn't just allow the Sox to restore order to their season but to their organization as well.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.