A few weeks ago Boston's front office announced that the team intended to convert Daniel Bard, Jonathan Papelbon's former stud setup man and heir apparent to his predecessor's vacant closer role, into a starting pitcher. I couldn't help but think about how they did the same thing with Pap, their All-Star fireman who was also 26 and coming off a great season in which he finished a distant second in the 2006 AL Rookie of the Year voting to young flamethrower Justin Verlander, during spring training of the following year. Fortunately the rumors never materialized; the Sox kept him as their ninth inning man, ended the year with Jason Varitek leaping into his arms on the mound in Coors Field, and watched him evolve into one of the game's elite closers over the next half decade. Texas created the same hoopla last year (and are already at it again) with 2010 AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz, but ultimately decided to keep him in the pen and came within one strike (twice!) of bringing home the franchise's first World Series trophy two months ago.
So I thought Boston was just blowing smoke to stir up some press in the notable absence of any major offseason acquisitions. But the team is in transition mode after last season's historic September collapse, and the front office is shaking things up. Bard, with his high 90s heater and late game experience, seemed perfectly suited to inherit Papelbon's job, but he will not be the team's closer in the foreseeable future. In a winter where the free agent market was flooded with closers, the Sox have opted to trade for their needs, first by dumping brittle shortstop Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland on the rebuilding Astros for Mark Melancon, and then by shipping Josh Reddick and a pair of minor leaguers to the hapless Oakland Athletics for closer Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney in a five player swap.
Boston appears to be the clear winner of this deal. Reddick has played almost a full season's worth of games in the majors, and the results (.290 OBP, 82 strikeouts against 22 walks) have been underwhelming, and his is a case of addition by subtraction. He's too aggressive at the plate and is the definition of streaky, but at 24 he's still young enough that he has some trade value for a team willing to take a chance on him. His replacement, Sweeney, should fit right in here since he is much better at getting on base and is a capable defender as well. He can provide some depth in rightfield (vacant with J.D. Drew's free agency) as a platoon option/bench player, but his lack of power (career .378 slugging percentage and fourteen home runs in over 1,500 at-bats) prevents him from playing every day.
But the top prize and biggest name in this deal is Andrew Bailey. In him the Sox get a proven closer and the 2009 AL Rookie of the Year who's saved 75 games over his three year career with a tidy 2.07 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. The 27 year old bumps Melancon to the setup role and gives Boston a solid back end of the bullpen, although it isn't nearly as intimidating as the fearsome Bard/Papelbon duo.
I must admit that I am somewhat skeptical about how Bailey will transition to Boston. After all, the two time All-Star has never pitched for a contender in his life, has never felt the pressure of a playoff race or dealt with an intense media and rabid fan base on a daily basis. Moving from the AL West to the AL Beast won't be easy, either, just as the switch from Oakland's cavernous football stadium to the entury old bandbox in the Fens will be quite the change of scenery. And although he claims to be healthier than he's ever been, I'm a little worried about the right forearm strain that kept him on the shelf for the season's first two months in 2011. He also missed a month in 2010, and he just seems fragile, not nearly as safe or durable as guys like Heath Bell. I'm sure he'll do just fine in Boston, and he might even be the second coming of Keith Foulke, but closers are always volatile and if he went Rafael Soriano on us I wouldn't be totally shocked, either.
But getting back to Bard, I feel like moving him to the rotation doesn't make much sense. I understand that John Lackey's lost season leaves a gaping hole in the rotation, and that the front office whiffed on all available free agent starting pitching (i.e. Mark Buehrle, C.J. Wilson,). But Bard has completed 197 big league innings, a typical yearly figure for your average modern starting pitcher (right in line with what Josh Beckett and Jon Lester tossed last year despite missing a few starts), except as a reliever he's milked those innings out of three seasons. He inexplicably broke down in September (10.64 ERA, 1.82 WHIP, 11/9 K/BB ratio), limping to the finish line and costing Boston a playoff berth despite a workload nearly identical to 2010's; believe it or not, he threw 36 fewer pitches and appeared in three consecutive games only twice in 2011, so what gives? Francona clearly didn't overuse him, yet he was woefully ineffective when the team needed him most. I'm afraid of the Joba Chamberlain effect, where a star reliever is ruined by his high-profile organization fixing something that ain't broke, but luckily it's virtually impossible for the young fireballer to be any worse than sunk investments Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Bard has the repertoire to be an effective major league starter, and God knows the Red Sox need him to be, but if Bailey and Melancon go bust (as Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler did last year) then their bullpen, and probably their season, will be doomed.