Entering spring training, it appeared that the Red Sox were committed to giving Daniel Bard a chance to at least open the regular season in the starting rotation. And there was seemingly a six-way battle for the No. 5 spot in the rotation.
Now, since Bard has struggled with his command during spring training and has logged a 7.11 ERA in four appearances, walking 10 in 12.2 innings and allowing 10 runs and 11 hits. Opposing hitters only have a .226 average against him, but if Bard cannot consistently throw strikes, his pitch count will rapidly rise and he will have trouble getting through five innings.
Meanwhile, new closer Andrew Bailey and new primary set-up man Mark Melancon have struggled at time during spring training, so the Sox could decide to use Alfredo Aceves and Bard out of the pen and perhaps start Aaron Cook and Felix Doubront. Or they could insert Aceves into the rotation and use Bard as a set-up man.
Cook is healthy for the first time in a couple years, and he has pitched well in spring training. The idea of Cook and Doubront, the 24-year-old left-hander, in the back of the rotation and Aceves and Bard joining Bailey and Melancon in the pen is intriguing. Cook is a proven workhorse starter when healthy, and induces a lot of ground balls with his sinker. Doubront is a power lefty who has tremendous upside as a starter or a reliever, but the Sox believe he will be en effective starter – whether that time is now or in the future.
The initial six-way competition for the No. 5 spot included Aceves, Doubront, Cook, Vicente Padilla, Andrew Miller and Carlos Silva.
The right-handed Silva, who was experiencing shoulder problems, was released. Miller has looked impressive this spring, but he could open the season on the disabled list due to a hamstring strain. He is out of options and will either make the Opening Day roster as a reliever, or will be placed on the DL. Padilla’s arm appears healthy, and he has pitched well in spring training, but he experienced a setback due to a hamstring strain and could join Miller on the Opening Day DL or claim a bullpen spot since he is not stretched out enough for the rotation.
Aceves has been one of the most dominant pitchers of any team in spring training, logging a 1.00 ERA in nine innings with eight strikeouts and no walks. Doubront has pitched respectably with a 3.38 ERA in three appearances, but he did walk three in two innings in his first outing and allow two runs and eight hits over 4.2 innings in his last game. Cook, who allowed two runs and four hits in four innings on Thursday night against the Yankees, has looked sharp with a 1.93 ERA in 9.1 innings, but he might not be stretched out enough in time for Opening Day and could start the season at Pawtucket.
The Red Sox have depth and options in the bullpen and the rotation. Franklin Morales has returned after a bout with shoulder weakness and could serve as the lone left-handed reliever if Doubront is in the rotation and Miller is on the DL. Morales, Doubront and Miller are all out of options and the Red Sox want to keep all three.
The bullpen will get a lift if Rich Hill returns around June. The left-handed reliever’s rehab from Tommy John surgery is ahead of schedule, and he will be a valuable part of the pen when he is ready.
The rotation will get a boost when Daisuke Matsuzaka is deemed ready. Matsuzaka is also ahead of schedule with his recovery from Tommy John surgery and seems revitalized with the presence of Valentine.
If Doubront is in the rotation and Miller and Padilla open the season on the DL, that would help Michael Bowden make the team. Bowden has looked sharp during spring training and is out of options.
Multiple media outlets suggest that Aceves and Doubront are now the favorites for the final two rotation spots, which means Cook would open the season stretching out his innings at Pawtucket and Bard would join Bailey and Melancon in the pen.
Bard has the assortment of plus pitches to serve as an effective starter, but it is understandable why Valentine would return him to the bullpen if he cannot consistently throw strikes. Bailey, Bard and Melancon would compose a formidable late-inning trio whereas Aceves in the pen would serve in multiple roles and not just as a set-up man.
There are concerns that Aceves, Bard and Doubront would wear down in the second half since they have not logged anywhere close to 180-200 innings in a season. That is where the presence of Cook, Matsuzaka, Padilla and Ohlendorf will be beneficial.
The Red Sox rotation and bullpen are not set, but there is comfort knowing the team has depth in both areas. That is quite the change from last season.