I talked to both decorated former pitchers for today's media column, which led off as a look at TBS's baseball coverage this season (Eck and Smoltz will again serve as analysts) but meandered into the Bobby Valentine/Michael Kay fake controversy.
As I noted in the piece, the normally ebullient and unfiltered Eck didn't want to touch the question regarding how he feels about Valentine, which makes me think two things: 1) I'm a buffoon of a reporter for not being able to get it out of him. 2) On the nights when Valentine does something puzzling and the Eck is on the postgame show, it's going to be appointment viewing.
There was one other topic I brought up that both Eckersley and Smoltz are eminently qualified to comment on: the Daniel Bard dilemma. An effective setup man for two-plus seasons with the Red Sox, Bard prefers to start, and he's getting that chance. But with closer Andrew Bailey lost into the summer, it's possible that he's needed in the bullpen, particularly after the semi-meltdown in the season-opening 3-2 loss to the Tigers Thursday.
Eckersley famously salvaged his career by moving from fading starter to lights-out closer with the A's in 1986, and Smoltz thrived as a starter for 14 season, was an exceptional closer for four (2001-04), then returned to the rotation without a hitch in '05. Between them, they have 45 big-league seasons, 407 wins, 544 saves, and Smoltz is a sure bet to join Eckersley in Cooperstown someday.
Both believe Bard can be an excellent starter, and both caution that the shift from relief to starting is more challenging than vice versa. I think the Red Sox should keep Bard in the rotation but will, sooner rather than later, cave to Valentine's wishes and return him to the late-inning role. But what do I know? Here are the expert opinions of Smoltz and Eckersley, which, it should be noted, they shared during an interview the day before the Red Sox opener:
Smoltz: "I had 14 years as a starting pitcher, so I had some arm strength built up before I did it. These guys [Daniel Bard and the Rangers' Neftali Feliz, who is making a similar conversion] have not logged a lot of innings. It’s going to be difficult in that regard. It’s not that they can’t do it, but they are going to need some time. To do it in one year and for winning ball clubs is enough pressure in itself.
"Bard especially is a hard thrower. He'll need to learn to live at a different miles per hour and feel comfortable and consistent with his mechanics. I know both of these guys always wanted to be starters, they were both converted to the bullpen because of circumstances or because it was a faster track to the major leagues. The both have the 100 miles per hour arms, but it's a matter of whether they can get into a rhythm with their mechanics and use the great stuff that they both have. If they can, they'll be fine, but just remember they don't have 1,000 innings of experience as they go into this. I hope it really works for them.''
Eckersley: "They have an instant advantage because they both have electric stuff. They don't have a lot of innings, and when you haven't started, you run into those innings where you throw a lot of pitches just to get through and it throws you off, even those lights-out guys. They have to learn to manage that, because those pitches can add up on them. But either one of them is capable of winning 15 games very easily.
"But the way it is with the Red Sox, with their bullpen situation and [Andrew] Bailey hurt, if it doesn't work out early on, they're going to be thinking of pulling him back in [to the bullpen. That's always going to be there.''
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.