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Evaluating Bard as a starter should be an open-and-shut case

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  April 11, 2012 01:27 PM

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There has to be parameters set for Daniel Bard to continue as a starter for the Red Sox. (Brad White / Getty Images)

If Daniel Bard's first major league start was supposed to provide conclusive evidence of how his right arm can best be deployed for the Red Sox this season then what was submitted was like the outing itself -- open to interpretation.

Bard did nothing to sway public opinion on whether he should be a starter or a reliever. Those lined up on either side of the debate like Republicans and Democrats before his first big league start are likely entrenched in the same spots after Bard pitched five uneven innings in Toronto on Tuesday evening, credited with allowing five runs on eight hits while striking out six.

Proponents of Bard's conversion to a starter will point out that he only allowed one extra-base hit, at one point set down seven in a row, generated enough swings and misses from the Blue Jays to lobby for a wind farm subsidy, and had his final line inflated when Justin Thomas allowed a two-run single.

Bullpen backers will point out that Bard's effort wasn't better than that of Felix Doubront. That he still looked like a two-pitch pitcher (fastball, slider) who intermittently had difficulty putting hitters away. That Aaron Cook probably could have given you a similar start, and that another reliever-turned-starter, Texas's Neftali Feliz, tossed seven shutout innings on the same night.

Evaluating whether Bard's switch to the starting rotation was a worthwhile undertaking is not going to happen after one night in Toronto. It's going to take some time, but we should at least set some parameters. If it turns out Bard is basically your average No. 4 starter then his days as a starter need to end.

For Bard's move to the rotation to be a success he has to show that can he can be a top three major league starter. Anything less and he belongs back in the bullpen.

The Yankees showed last year that you can exhume No. 4 and No. 5 starters. What really matters is your Big Three. The Red Sox learned that lesson the hard way last year when Buchholz was sidelined by a balky back and the Sox were starting the likes of Kyle Weiland, Andrew Miller and a broken-down Erik Bedard in September.

Even if Alfredo Aceves, who lowered his earned run average from infinity on high to a mere 27.00 with his first save, proves he can close, the Sox still might need Bard in the bullpen as the eighth-inning guy because not all late-inning pitching is equal.

Not all saves or holds are equal. Not everybody can pitch or produce in a late-inning role in a city full of fervent, emotionally invested fans like Boston. Preserving a late-inning lead in Oakland or Kansas City isn't the same as doing it in New York, Boston or Philadelphia.

If you disagree with the geographical premise then you have to allow for the psychological one. Saving Game 91 isn't the same as trying to save Game 6 of the World Series, just ask Feliz or Calvin Schiraldi.

It was exactly the kind of flawed thinking that dismissed the human element of pitching late in games that led to the Sox' ill-fated Closer by Committee catastrophe in 2003 -- a pitching theory so pernicious that it created a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder for manager Grady Little that proved fatal in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

Mark Melancon, Bard's successor in the eighth-inning role, has already experienced more pressure in the Motown Meltdowns than he did all last season saving 20 games for a horrific Houston Astros team (56-106). Closing out games for a team where victories are a pleasant surprise is different than doing it for a team that is expected to win.

As bad as Bard was last September -- 0-4, 10.64 ERA, three blown saves -- he has proven he can pitch in Boston in a pressure, late-inning relief role, which is no small feat.

The only time Bard pitched in the playoffs, 2009, he pitched three scoreless innings across two appearances and struck out four without a walk. In Game 3 against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Orange County of Southern California, he entered in the sixth inning, inheriting a bases-loaded, no outs situation and induced a run-scoring double-play grounder and a pop-up. He then set down the side in order in the seventh.

Any pitcher who can pitch in the cauldron of noise that is Red Sox Nation and not allow a run over a span of 25 consecutive appearances, a team record, and toss 26 1/3 straight scoreless innings of relief, as Bard did last season, is more valuable than an average No. 4 or No. 5 starting pitcher.

That's because nothing eats away at the morale or the psyche of a team like a blundering bullpen.

Sox general manager Ben Cherington is right to be bullish on making Bard a starter because the righthander has flashed the stuff to be a top three starter. So, if Josh Beckett is thumbs down or Clay Buchholz proves too frail, Bard can be an inexpensive insurance policy.

Bard's transformation into a top-of-the rotation pitcher would also give the Sox the flexibility to part ways with the peevish Beckett and the remaining $31.5 million on his contract after this season, if now in their coupon-clipping days they deem that money better spent nowhere.

But if a month or two into this grand experiment the Sox bullpen is still undermanned and unreliable, and Bard is not out-pitching Doubront, never mind Buchholz or Beckett, the plug has to be pulled.

The Sox will have other options for fourth and fifth starters like Cook, the still-unsigned Roy Oswalt and the rehabbing Daisuke Matsuzaka. This is not even taking into account the fact the Sox told us one of the justifications for the team's frugality this offseason was so they could sock away money for in-season acquisitions.

Bard will continue building his case to be the starter on Marathon Monday, but what it takes to make it in the long-run should be clear.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...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.

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