The Boston Red Sox have a big problem this spring, and nobody is talking about it.
Daniel Bard, expected to make a smooth transition to the rotation and hold the No. 4 spot throughout the season, is not a good starting pitcher.
We all know about his career minor league numbers as a starter. His 7.08 ERA, 2.053 WHIP and startling 78 walks vs. 47 strikeouts in just 75.0 innings pitched accurately reflect his struggles on the mound. What should alarm Red Sox fans is that his numbers have been remarkably similar this spring.
In 12.2 Grapefruit League innings, Bard has compiled an ERA of 7.11 and a WHIP of 1.66. After two promising starts (zero ER, three BB, three K's in 5.0 IP), Bard has been torched in his previous two appearances (10 ER, seven BB, three K's in 7.2 IP). With a sample size this small it would not be fair to draw any definitive conclusions, but the results are nevertheless quite troubling.
There are two primary causes for concern here. The first is the walk-to-strikeout ratio. In 2011, the best K/BB among qualified MLB starters belonged to Roy Halladay (6.29) and the worst belonged to Brad Penny (1.19). Bard's K/BB ratio this spring stands at 0.60, which is exactly the same number he posted in his 22 minor league starts. You don't need to be a mathematician to know that this is not good.
The second troubling aspect of Bard's spring is not entirely his fault. The manner in which he is being stretched out for the season is vexing at best and downright foolish at worst. In his previous two appearances, Bard has thrown 35 and 34 pitches.
For someone like Josh Beckett or Jon Lester, this lack of work would not be an issue; both have pitched full seasons and know what they need to do to be ready. Bard, however, has never thrown more than 38 pitches in a major league game. He needs to experience pitching late in games when he is feeling fatigued, and he is running out of time before the games actually count in the standings.
What should the Red Sox do with Daniel Bard?
The 105 total pitches Bard has thrown this spring are what a pitcher typically will throw in a normal regular season start. The fact that the regular season starts in 13 days and Bard is just now getting to this number should be cause for great concern. If he tires early in games, the bullpen will have to throw a whole lot of innings they won't be able to get back in the stretch run.
There is an obvious parallel for what is happening with Bard. After a season-ending shoulder injury the year before, Jonathan Papelbon entered camp prepared to become a starter in 2007. Like Bard, he too had been a starter in the minor leagues, albeit with a bit more success. However, despite having a strong spring (2.31 ERA to that point), Papelbon was sent back to the bullpen.
At the time, manager Terry Francona justified the move by saying that Papelbon "is unique. He's at the top of the list of relievers in baseball." Given Bard's great success last year, the same could be said about him.
The Sox would be best served, then, sending Bard back to the bullpen. Given their excellent performances this spring, both Felix Doubront and Alfredo Aceves can be inserted into the rotation as the No. 4 and No. 5 starters.
What the Sox lose from the bullpen in moving Aceves to the rotation they will gain back in Bard, who until September last year was as outstanding a setup man as any in MLB. A combination of Mark Melancon, Bard and Andrew Bailey in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings would be a dominant trio, with all three capable of finishing games if necessary.
Bard's next start will be on Sunday, with one or two more appearances after that before his first scheduled start April 9th at Toronto. If the Sox were wise, they'd scrap the Bard starting plan right now, get him back in the bullpen and restore order to their pitching staff.