Who knows when Bobby Valentine will collect his first win as the manager of the Boston Red Sox — a nation turns its panicking eyes to you, Felix Doubront — but it sure looks like he’s already on the verge of a smaller victory.
Within the next week, perhaps even before he makes his first start, I’ll bet you a Mike Strahler rookie card that Daniel Bard will be ordered to put on the flame-retardant suit and reassigned to the back of the Red Sox’ engulfed bullpen.
Which is what his manager seemed to want all along.
There has been no suggestion, let alone confirmation, that this is imminent. The only clue is Bobby V’s candid response when asked after Sunday’s debacle in Detroit whether Bard might become the closer. “He might,” Valentine said.
He might, he probably will … but he shouldn’t. Three lousy games against a ferocious Detroit lineup has not convinced me that this bullpen is a collection of Chad Fox clones, and it shouldn’t convince you, either, though correspondence the past few days suggests we’re on the verge of panic on Landsdowne Street.
It amazes me that Alfredo Aceves, who is 24-3 with a 3.04 ERA in his career and who was brilliant in 55 games a season ago, is being abandoned by some Red Sox fans after two ugly appearances. If any holdover from last year’s staff deserves the benefit of the doubt, it’s that guy. I’m pretty sure he’ll retire a batter at some point this season. A lot of batters.
Maybe Mark Melancon does have the Schiraldi eyes, as Shaughnessy put it after yesterday’s implosion, but he’s a pitcher who had 20 saves and a 2.78 ERA in 71 appearances last year, and who has long been lauded for his makeup. Don’t give up on him yet, despite the worrisome beginning. Who among us didn’t have the Schiraldi eyes too after that abomination yesterday? You could see it coming, and yet it was still a gut-punch.
But it is not time to panic. It’s not. If we’re going to jump to three-game conclusions, Jose Iglesias has as many errors as hits at Pawtucket. (That would be one.) C’mon, people, let this play out for a while. You know that patience is imperative in baseball over the 162-game grind, and even when things are going as badly as they have through three games, it should be obvious that the Red Sox have the core of an excellent team.
The lineup led the majors in runs last year with a black hole in right field save for Josh Reddick‘s one hot month and an abysmal season from Carl Crawford. A healthy Crawford (eventually) and a Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney platoon should improve a lineup that already features three of the top nine finishers in the AL MVP balloting last season. And is Mike Aviles winning you over yet? The range isn’t spectacular, but this is a player who hit .325 with 10 homers as a rookie in ’08. I’m telling you, he’ll give the Red Sox everything Marco Scutaro did.
And barring significant injury to Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, or Clay Buchholz, or unforeseen catastrophe such as a Dr. Charles “Titanic” reenactment on the Fenway lawn gone horribly wrong, the rotation will be much better this year, based on who isn’t here as much as who is.
In Red Sox history, there have been 32 occasions in which a pitcher had an ERA above 5.00 while throwing at least 150 innings in a season. Nine happened between 1996-2004, the heart of the steroid era. Two of those seasons took place last year — Tim Wakefield (5.12 ERA) and John Lackey (6.41) combined for 314.2 innings, 366 hits allowed, and 202 earned runs. And that doesn’t include the contributions — insert your own air quotes — of Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Lackey had — and this cannot be emphasized enough — the worst starting pitcher the Red Sox have had for any length of time in a single season. Frank Castillo in 2002 (5.07 ERA) would be an improvement over Lackey. Mark Portugal in ’99, with his 5.51 ERA? Even that mound sloth is a slight upgrade. Al Nipper ’86, Dennis Eckersley ’83, even Hod Lisenbee ’31 were all better than Lackey was a season ago.
Bard will be an upgrade as a starter, and he could be a major upgrade. As much as it appears through less than two percent of the schedule that he’s essential to the bullpen, over the course of the long season the 175 or so innings that he could provide as a league-average starter are more valuable than what he could provide in a relief role. And imagine if he’s better than league-average. Seems to me there’s a better likelihood of that than there is of Aaron Cook — who has a 4.53 career ERA, all in the National League, and whose ERA in 97 innings last year was .11 lower than Lackey’s — giving the Red Sox anything of substance.
The Red Sox need to stay the course through at least the next few weeks with the current staff alignment. Use Aceves as the closer, perhaps unconventionally, with the more than occasional two-inning appearance. Let Melancon set up and try to find his stuff, with assistance from the enigmatic but intriguing Vicente Padilla and Franklin Morales, a one-time phenom (“Has the ability to be a top-of-the-rotation starter” — 2008 Baseball America Prospect Handbook) who has improved his walk rate and command and could be on the verge of a breakout. Junichi Tazawa may be here sooner rather than later.
The pining for Bard to close or the yowling that they didn’t even make Jonathan Papelbon an offer is understandable, even if it requires a slight revision of history (Papelbon was going to free agency no matter what, and $50 million for any closer is a fool’s transaction) and the willingness to ignore that both were complicit in the September flop. There’s a heightened anxiousness to do something to halt the flashbacks to the collapse, to find assurance that this is a new season and a new beginning.
No, it has not begun the way Red Sox fans have hoped, and certainly not the way Valentine envisioned. But that’s no reason for panic. This is still going to be a very good team, one with a fierce lineup (even if Youkilis is currently giving off a Mike Lowell ’10 vibe) and what should be an upgraded pitching staff based in part on a newfangled stat I like to call LAH — Lackey Ain’t Here.
Leave Bard in his spot in the rotation, and give the quality pitchers who are struggling a chance to get themselves right.
It’s probably not what the Red Sox will do, because the manager now has leverage to put Bard where he wanted him all along. But it’s what they should do. I know it feels like they’re never going to win another game right now. But this will be a damn good ball club. Patience and faith, should there be any left in supply all of three games into this season, will be rewarded.