|Daniel Bard, once seen as Jonathan Papelbon's apprentice, eyes a rotation spot. (Getty Images)|
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- How do you put distance between the worst September collapse in major-league history and the, ahem, future? One pitch at a time.
So here the Red Sox are, mid-spring. You look around, and there are no carcasses. The vultures have moved along. What remains at the dawn of a new morning are a bright sun, clear blue skies, a beautiful new spring ballpark and a new voice in Bobby Valentine.
|Boston Red Sox|
Bobby Valentine is all over the place, moving from one practice field to the next. Likes, dislikes >>
Culture change? Sure. Different vibe? You bet. New message? Yep.
But here's the thing. Pick the meat off all of the fried chicken bones you want, the Red Sox this year will not live and die by armchair psychology and new rules.
Three weeks from now in Detroit, the Boston manager is going to call for his closer to protect a ninth-inning lead. And for the first time since 2005, the guy answering that particular bell to start the season will not be Jonathan Papelbon.
Bard, who for the past couple of seasons was viewed as Pap's apprentice, instead is moving to the other end of ballgames. He is viewed as the near-slam-dunk favorite to earn the No. 4 starter's job.
"That hasn't been put in concrete yet in my mind," Valentine cautions.
Bailey, a two-time All-Star, was acquired from Oakland over the winter to replace Papelbon and spring Bard free for the rotation. But he's been more fragile than an Easter egg the past two seasons and already has endured a lat strain this spring.
He denies, however, the first thing he does stepping out of bed each morning is take inventory and make sure all of his body parts are still in one piece from the night before.
"No," he says, grinning. "I just think about getting to the field and playing baseball. It's awesome.
"I'm looking forward to a good start and a healthy year."
The Red Sox have two enormous projects in front of them: directing Bard's conversion and managing Bailey's health.
Sleeper ... Ryan Sweeney, OF: The arrival of Ryan Sweeney as the Red Sox's new starting right fielder was met with reactions ranging from yawns to outrage, but few were excited about the development. As a producer of empty batting averages around .290 in Oakland, Sweeney had done little to establish himself over the past few seasons. However, the line-drive hitting outfielder was penalized by playing his home games in Oakland, but in Fenway Park, Sweeney gets a double-hitter's nirvana as his new home park. If Sweeney was capable of producing a 30-plus doubles season in Oakland, 35 or 40 doubles would not be out of the question in Boston. He still doesn't possess enough home run power to be valuable in Rotisserie leagues, but Sweeney could be a surprise contributor in Head-to-Head formats, where he would be worth a late-round flier or waiver wire pickup.
Bust ... Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C: Jarrod Saltalamacchia had shown the potential to hit for some power in the minor leagues, but prior to last season, he hadn't really delivered on it in the majors. His pace of 16 home runs in 358 at-bats was far better than any ratio he had put up previously, and particularly with a high percentage of short-distance homers, it seems unlikely that he will equal it this year. Salty's 23 doubles were also out of character, though some of those can be attributed to playing home games at Fenway Park. Still, owners should expect a downturn in Saltalamacchia's power and run-production stats this year, which would render him as a low-end option in standard mixed leagues at best. -- Al Melchior
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How they fare with each will have serious repercussions all the way to October.
There are options for the bottom of the rotation, but right now it's quantity more than quality. Alfredo Aceves. Veterans Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla and Ross Ohlendorf. Daisuke Matsuzaka in June, perhaps, if his comeback from arm surgery progresses.
None has the lightning in his arms, or the off-the-charts intrigue, of Bard.
"I think he can do it," first-year Sox pitching coach Bob McClure says. "He thinks he can do it.
"And from all indications, it looks like he can do it."
Most importantly, Bard, 26, is all in.
"He's all gung-ho, putting all of his eggs in that basket," Bailey says of his new teammate.
Says Bard: "I loved throwing out of the bullpen. It's a rush like no other. Not a lot of guys can do it consistently and do it well. It was a great opportunity for three years."
He views this as an opportunity to grow, to move on, to expand himself and to pick up the team.
As Papelbon's setup man last year, Bard was absolutely sensational mid-summer, producing 25 consecutive scoreless appearances (26 1/3 innings). Nobody was more dominant.
Then September arrived, and he surrendered 13 runs during an 11-inning stretch when he couldn't locate his mechanics with Mr. Goodwrench and a GPS. Nobody was more perplexed.
One of the first things McClure did this spring is change the direction of Bard's feet. Now, they're pointed more directly toward the plate, rather than off toward the side.
"I was throwing across my body before," Bard says.
Now, he's not.
"I'm more in line now," he says. "I think my command has gotten noticeably better."
McClure, who pitched in the majors for 19 years and was pitching coach in Kansas City for the past six seasons, thinks about things well beyond the surface and uses terms like "linear alignment."
"There are exceptions to every rule, but guys most always, when they're aligned from a linear standpoint, stand a much better chance of repeating their delivery," he says.
Because Bard will need to repeat his delivery for 120 to 130 pitches a game instead of 15 to 20, this is the basis for everything else for him this spring.
A four-pitch pitcher, Bard often would leave his changeup in the dugout as a set-up man because when your heater hits 100 mph, you don't need all of your pitches. This spring, he's throwing twice as many changeups as sliders simply because, as he says, "you've got to throw it to get some confidence in it."
Three rocky innings Thursday didn't help. He walked four as St. Louis lit him up for seven runs. The problems started when he was throwing extra changeups simply to work on them, and then couldn't escape the onslaught when he went back to his strengths. His assignment next outing is clear: Throw more strike ones.
As for Bailey, 27, sometimes just throwing a pitch has been all but lethal.
He jumped from Double-A to the majors in 2009, became the Athletics' closer by the end of May and was named an All-Star as a rookie. But during the past two seasons, he's missed time with a right intercostal strain, right elbow surgery and a strained right forearm.
"He's always been very good," McClure says. "He has a history of health issues. Hopefully, he saves 40 games."
So no, worst-case scenario for Boston this summer does not involve Popeye's or Budweiser. It is the idea of Bailey missing half the summer with dings and nicks, Bard failing as a starter and the bottom two-thirds of Boston's rotation becoming a sieve.
If the trap door opens under Bailey, yes, Bard could return to the 'pen and become an outstanding closer. But Bard can't be in two places at once. If this entire blueprint doesn't mesh, there likely will be a hole somewhere.
That's why this spring's progression with these two is so important to the Sox.
"I like what I'm seeing," veteran infielder Nick Punto says of Bard. "His breaking ball is incredible. It's moving, like, two feet when I've been out there at second base."
"He knows how to do the physical things it takes to pitch in the big leagues," Beckett says. "That's the hardest part. There will be some hurdles he's going to have to get over, but he ain't going to get over them now. It's middle-of-the-year stuff. Innings pitched, things like that."
Yes, after working 73 innings as a reliever last year and 74 2/3 the year before, the Sox will be watching his innings the way you watch utility bills.
Though, as Bard says, "I'll try to pitch well enough that they don't feel they need to."
Project, experiment, call it what you will. As they move from picking up the pieces to clean-slate mode, the Sox are doing it one pitch at a time. There is no other way.
Which is why, as big a deal as this is, the Red Sox are leaving the bullpen door cracked open just a wee bit.
"From a development standpoint, from a team standpoint, I'd say it will be a good thing," McClure says of Bard's new gig. "I think in whatever role he ends up in, he will help the team.
"We're still in the early part of spring training. I want that specified, that it is very early. A lot of things look great early in spring training."
Yeah, don't the Red Sox know it.