The Red Sox Shuffle : Kevin Youkilis, Will Middlebrooks, and Daniel Bard

When Terry Francona was manager, he usually pointed out that worrying about the bench and pinch hitters wasn’t a big concern for the Red Sox because the front office had built an everyday lineup. Players were responsible for one position, with a little background in another for the occasional “banged up” guy who avoided the disabled list by sitting out for six or seven days. He never imagined the type of injuries that would follow the Red Sox from Spring Training forward in 2012. Now that Alfredo Aceves has locked down the closer job, at least until Andrew Bailey returns,, the two players who are still, possibly, in flux as to their position going forward: Daniel Bard and Kevin Youkilis.

The Bard

One of the most surprising storylines of the past offseason was the plan to move Daniel Bard, heir apparent to Jonathan Papelbon, from the closer line of succession and into the starting rotation. There were views taken on both sides: Bard was not particularly impressive as a starter after first signing with the Red Sox but was lights out as a reliever and Bard as a even a 3/4/5 starter would be more valuable over 200 innings per season than as a closer or setup guy pitching at most 80 innings each year. Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe was ready to end the Bard experiment a few weeks ago. At the time, I wholeheartedly disagreed. Bard’s work in relief was brilliant: in 197 innings between 2009 and 2011 Bard struck out 213 batters, surrendered 76 walks of the unintentional variety, and gave up just 132 hits.

If even half of that stuff could follow him into the starting rotation the impact would have been huge. I hoped the Red Sox would stick with Bard as long as it took to find out if he could be a starter. While the Red Sox continued to send Bard out for the first inning, the wheels eventually fell off, and the car rolled all the way down a cliff into a ditch. On June 3rd against the Blue Jays, Bard lasted just 1.2 innings. While recording five outs Bard walked 6, hit 2, and allowed 5 runs. It took 55 pitches – nearly half as many as he normally threw over five or six inning outings, even those (most of them) where Bard wasn’t exactly sharp.

And so Daniel Bard was returned to the minors. The Red Sox were committed to the experiment. After all, Bard had just 55.0 MLB innings as a starter under his belt. On June 8th, Bard made his first minor league start. It could have gone better: 1.0 inning, 3 runs (but 2 Ks). After this outing, the Sox, still committed to Bard as a starter, decided to shake things up: he would continue to build back to a starter’s workload through relief outings. Returning Bard to the kind of outings he succeeded in the past seems to have worked. In his next five innings for the PawSox Bard gave up just 1 run and 2 walks while striking out 6.

At the moment, the Red Sox are still committed to bringing Bard back to the Majors as a starting pitcher, but nothing is written in stone. Daisuke Matsuzaka is back, Aaron Cook isn’t far behind, and the Red Sox have been rumored to be interested in Cubs’ starters Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza. Should any of these have success – either on field or via acquisition – the Sox could easily return Bard to the bullpen and have a deep back-of-the-pen including Aceves, Bailey, Melancon, and Bard. If the Red Sox can win a few more games on the back of a starting rotation that keeps the team competitive, that is a playoff-caliber bullpen.

Whether or not Bard makes another start, getting him back on track is the key. Right now, it looks like the trip to the minors is just what the doctor ordered.

Stuck in the Middlebrooks with Youk

Will Middlebrooks has played well enough to warrant a starting job on a Major League team. A .289/.328/.484 line with 7 home runs and a quality glove at third base is nothing to sneeze at. Despite being the youngest, least experienced, player of the bunch, Middlebrooks has stayed at third base while Adrian Gonzalez has played right field, allowing Kevin Youkilis to man first. It’s not ideal, but everyone is getting at bats.

The problem is that Youkilis is mired in a slump: .215/.301/.314 on the season and .211/.309/.338 since returning from the disabled list. It doesn’t matter how many teams Ben Charrington talks to about the veteran third baseman, a slumping player coming off tough injuries is not an easy sell.

However, Ken Rosenthal, the expert on knowing where players are going, hears that the end is in fact near for Youkilis. An official with a National League team told Rosenthal that the Greek God of Walks is “being shopped everywhere.” Among the leaders are the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Pirates in the National League and the White Sox and Indians in the American League. The demand is there, the price is probably low, although that doesn’t mean the Red Sox won’t get a decent player of some type in return if they pick up some salary, and the replacement is in-house. This is a combination of factors not often present when a trade is rumored or, in fact, imminent.

Where do they go from here?

Fourth place. At least. The Toronto Blue Jays have lost three starters in the past week – one has already undergone Tommy John surgery, ending his season. If Ellsbury, Crawford, and Bailey can contribute at anything close to their ability, Clay Buchholz avoids Logan Morrison, and Ryan Kalish is healthy, the Red Sox have the ability to field a dramatically better team in the second half. And that doesn’t include Adrian Gonzalez breaking out of his season-long slump. The bottom has likely already passed, even if it hasn’t been reflected in the win column.

Daniel Bard Headed Back to the Bullpen?

According to CSNNE’s Sean McAdam, the Red Sox front office is preparing for the possibility that Daniel Bard returns to the bullpen for 2012, rather than take a place in the starting rotation. Instead, Alfredo Aceves, the swingman from 2011, could complete his own transition from relief to starting.

In 12.2 innings this spring, Bard has allowed eleven hits and ten runs, good for a 7.11 ERA. The right hander, who posts  a career 2.80 K:BB walk, has not been as stingy with the base on ball this spring, handing out ten walks to just six strikeouts.

Aceves, on the other hand, has allowed only one run during his 9.0 Spring Training innings. On top of that he has struck out eight and has not issued a single walk.

Of course, Spring Training statistics are nearly meaningless: they represent a very small sample of work during a warm-up period that makes even talented veterans like Roy Halladay look foolish at times. In addition, the nature of spring games is such that pitchers are not put in and taken out of games as they are in the regular season, but to “get in work.” If a starter is pitching well, he will still be removed early in the game for the relief pitchers slated to go that day. Same with hitters. The Red Sox know this, so the question is why run the experiment if the highly flawed results will make a difference?

The Red Sox have not made an official announcement or confirmation of this report and perhaps a good outing by Bard next time will end all speculation if it appears he has settled into starting and found the comfort he normally has while relieving.

On the plus side, Aceves is a perfectly acceptable back of the rotation starter. If Daniel Bard cannot be better than that, for any reason, why mess with a good thing? In concert with Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, a return to the bullpen by Bard would give the Red Sox a formidable trio to end ballgames.

And as a bonus, David Ortiz will probably be happy too.

Cross-posted from Sports of Boston