When Daniel Bard came to spring training with the Red Sox last season, it was as a newly converted reliever, one who had had a measure of success over the winter in Hawaii.
But he also was coming off a horrendous 2007, a season of too many walks and too many men on base and failure after failure at two levels of Single A.
He comes into 2009 with an invitation to major league camp, and a chance of ringing up a triple-digit speed on the Fenway Park radar gun by the end of the year.
Nothing is assured, but with the Sox' willingness to promote the talent in their farm system, and an incredible about-face in the minors in 2008, Bard and his powerful right arm might be closing in on major league readiness.
"Just like a lot of these guys in this camp, he cannot be surprised by anything," Sox director of player development Mike Hazen said at the team's rookie development program at Boston College yesterday. "He's got to go out there, and if he continues to progress, I wouldn't be surprised at all [to see him in the majors this season]."
Bard, who was drafted in the first round out of the University of North Carolina in 2006, had never relieved - in high school, college, or the minors - when he received a phone call from the Sox telling him that Hawaii would bring a transition to the bullpen. Working closely with Double A pitching coach Mike Cather, who helped alter his delivery from over-the-top to three-quarters, Bard made the change about as well as the Sox could have hoped, with a 5-1 record and 1.51 ERA in 46 games between Single A Greenville and Double A Portland last season.
Most important, he harnessed his pitches, after walking 78 in 75 innings in 2007. He authored a 22-inning scoreless streak last summer, earning the chance to close for Portland.
"I think my first year of pro ball I was so focused on development, I kind of lost sight that eventually you have to start performing and win some games," Bard said. "When I got that drive back in me to perform where personal success mattered, that's when things kind of turned around for me. I grabbed ahold of my career."
And he rewarded those watching that radar gun, hitting 100 miles per hour at times.
With the caveat that he'd been around some pretty good arms - catching Randy Johnson in the minors, and seeing Armando Benitez hit 103 m.p.h. - Sox minor league field coordinator Rob Leary said, "He's in the group . . . Dan's certainly got one of the premier power arms in the game."
"He was blessed," said Mark Wagner, who caught Bard last season with Portland. "It is really effortless. It's something that's fun to work with. It gives me great pleasure to kind of go out and say we've got a good chance to really shut somebody down because you don't have a lot of guys that throw 100, especially with his offspeed stuff as well."
Bard has an improving changeup, Hazen said, though he's likely to stick more with his fastball and slider. Those are the pitches that could bring him to the major leagues. And that will be as a reliever, as the Sox have no plans to move Bard back to the starting rotation.
"I think the transition to the bullpen was good for him," Hazen said. "I think it played to his mental abilities a little more, being able to be aggressive for three outs instead of having to try to get 15-18 outs every single day."
Bard has gone from a struggling first-round pick to one who has a chance to be the latest in a line of Sox prospects to make an impact.
"It feels good, to turn it around from one of the worst seasons I can imagine to having a very good season," Bard said. "It's good just to know you can bounce back - gives you confidence right there. Any other setbacks that could happen during my career, I know I can handle it."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.