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Are minors the solution to Bard dilemma?

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  June 5, 2012 12:46 PM

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I'm generally more about words than pictures, but it seems to me there's a pretty telling photo gallery to be found in Daniel Bard's last start. Call it "Near Casualties of a Meltdown,'' or something like that. There's your first two near casualties right there -- Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion's wrist, and Daniel Bard's shot at being a starting pitcher.

Encarnacion, drilled by a wayward Bard fastball in the inning Sunday, is day-to-day with a bruised hand, so he's fortunate that he's not quite a casualty. (He was in such obvious pain, I figured his wrist was broken.) But Bard's status in the rotation after his 1.2-inning, 6-walk disaster during which his fastball went on the fritz and he drilled two helpless Jays batters ... well, that may be a different matter.

The news came down late Tuesday afternoon that he was headed to Pawtucket, 45 or so miles down I-95 and a thousand miles from his place as one of the premier setup men in the American League the previous three seasons. In all honesty and after much consideration, I do not know whether this is the right move. I don't, and I don't know that Ben Cherington does, either.

Under normal circumstances, I'd hope Cherington would have more time to find out definitively whether Bard can be a quality starting pitcher in the major leagues, so I suppose sending him to Pawtucket is a good sign that they're not abandoning this attempt. As Gordon Edes, always a welcome voice of reason in matters such as these, pointed out, pitchers who have posted a similar line during their careers include Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Bob Feller, John Smoltz and Kerry Wood. He also cited Jays fireballer Brandon Morrow as an example of a pitcher who was brutal in making the conversion from bullpen to starter, but has thrived since. The point is one we should always remember: Patience is essential with even the most gifted pitchers when they're making a significant adjustment or attempting a new role.

I happen agree with that perspective, and I do not believe 10 starts is a big enough sample size to accurately assess whether Bard can be that quality starting pitcher, someone you can put down for, say, 14 or so wins and a 3.50-ish ERA every spring. It's easy to forget, but there have been flashes of excellence -- a 7-inning, 2-earned run, 1-walk win over the White Sox April 27, or the one earned run he allowed over six innings in beating Cleveland May 13. Sure, there have been more valleys than peaks, and right now, many people I respect who were skeptical about whether Bard could repeat his delivery consistently and whether his repertoire would translate to starting are looking prescient. But it's too soon for the final verdict on Daniel Bard, Starting Pitcher to be rendered.

But I also can acknowledge that perhaps these are not normal circumstances. That was not merely a bad performance by Bard Sunday. That looked alarmingly like -- to use that word again -- a meltdown. He had no idea where the ball was going once it left his hand. None. This wasn't Rick Ankiel collapsing under the pressure and expectations during the 2000 playoffs, but it was enough to make you think about that postseason when a potentially transcendent lefthanded pitcher unwittingly began his journey toward life as a mediocre outfielder. Isn't that alarming enough?

This dilemma just comes at you from so many angles. Those who wanted Bard to close early in the season can't possibly desire that now with Alfredo Aceves's success. Given the deft way Bobby Valentine has manipulated the rest of the bullpen into an excellent unit after a miserable start, I'm not sure I even want Bard in the mix there. I'd have rather seen Mark Melancon come back up than watch Bard return to a role he doesn't want and, depending upon whether he can find that missing velocity, may not have thrived in like he did through last summer.

It's complicated with the rotation, too. Daisuke Matsuzaka is nearly ready to return, and Aaron Cook will come back eventually, and Bard's removal from the rotation could clear up that log jam. Yet if I had to bet, I'd reluctantly take my chances on Bard being more effective for the remainder of this season than either of those two. I mean, Aaron Cook? That's the worst-case scenario for what Bard could be. And sometimes I wonder whether those pining for Dice-K actually remember Dice-K. He's no fiesta every fifth day either, folks.

I do recognize the logic in optioning Bard to Pawtucket. He gets a low-pressure chance to work out the kinks in his delivery and gain more comfort and familiarity as a starter while facing the more accommodating Triple A hitters. But there's also danger in this. What, if in a start next Thursday against the Buffalo Bisons, he walks two and beans, say, Val Pascucci in the first inning? What happens then (beyond the guarantee that he'd be charged and possibly maimed by lunatic Bisons manager Wally Backman)? Maybe getting sent to the minors isn't exactly the initial confidence boost that he needs right now, even if it is the most reasonable approach to setting him on the path back to success.

It must have been a tough call for rookie general manager Ben Cherington. But it's imperative that he gets this call right. Even with the shock of suddenly finding himself in the International League, Bard isn't going to be a casualty of a career-altering meltdown like Rick Ankiel. But if he continues to flail on the mound and in search of the right role, those Joba Chamberlain comparisons will be inevitable, and that's a what-if from an entirely different baseball nightmare.


About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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