After the Red Sox September collapse last season, everyone on Yawkey Way was looking for a fresh start to the season. But between injuries to Andrew Bailey, Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Kevin Youkilis commitment drama, the seeming indecision over what to do with Daniel Bard, and oh, the continuing and humiliating implosion of the Boston bullpen, the start to the season has been anything but fresh. Still, the team is showing little outward panic, as they are trying to weather the storm with low-key moves.
The team had tried to paper over the lack of outfield depth with Jason Repko, but he injured himself quite quickly, as he crashed into the Green Monster following a great catch on Friday against the Yankees. And with Che-Hsuan Lin needing regular reps and Ryan Kalish still not ready to return, the team was left without a good internal option, and reached out to grab Marlon Byrd from the Chicago Cubs. Chicago fans immediately took to the interwebs to happily wave goodbye to Byrd, who has had a dismal start to the season — his -58 wRC+ is the worst in the Majors among those who have accumulated at least 40 plate appearances.
It is a strange turn of events that Byrd would end up on the Sox, since it was Alfredo Aceves who turned his lights out — quite literally — with a beanball to the face last May. At the time, Byrd was hitting .308/.346/.419, but after missing more than a month with facial fractures as a result of that HBP, Byrd struggled, hitting just .255/.311/.380 the rest of the way. He is now far removed from the injury, but this season has been even less kind to the 34-year-old. While it is far too early to draw any definitive conclusions, Byrd is making less contact than he has in any season since his rookie year, and when he does make contact, he is hitting the ball on the ground the majority of the time. If that trend sticks, it would put him in rare company. In the past decade, only four players have had seasons with a GB/FB higher than the 3.17 that Byrd is currently sporting — Luis Castillo (four times), Derek Jeter (three), Ichiro Suzuki and Skip Schumaker. In other words, it probably won’t stick. While Byrd hit more grounders during his time in Chicago than he did previously, his GB/FB was in the 1.7 range in both of his seasons on the North Side. Chances are high that this is just an early-season funk.
That’s exactly what the Red Sox will hope for. Byrd can usually be counted on for league-average offense, but even if he doesn’t, he should be an upgrade for the Sox on defense alone until Ellsbury returns. Cody Ross can be a decent defender, but on Saturday he was eaten alive by Fenway’s center field, and may be better off in left. Acquiring Byrd not only allows that to happen, but also moves Darnell McDonald back into a utility role, where he also has more value.
The team also called up Lars Anderson to help fill the bench void. In an interesting turn of events, the team labeled him a left fielder on its transactions page. That is not something that many would have projected at the end of 2008, after Anderson had wrecked Double-A pitching to the tune of a .430 wOBA at the tender age of 20. But his power never translated past Portland, and the once stud first-base prospect has turned 4A warrior. As such, he has begun adding the outfield to his resume in hopes of becoming more attractive to both the Red Sox, as well as the other 29 teams to whom he may soon need to market his services, but he has thus far only played four games in the outfield at Pawtucket. With Byrd now in the fold, it’s unlikely that Anderson will be making too many starts, if any at all. Still, the hope is that he catches a little of the Daniel Nava/Josh Reddick lightning in a bottle on his journey north on the Pawtucket Shuttle.
That brings us to Daniel Bard. A lot of metaphorical ink has been spilled debating whether or not Bard should be a starter or a reliever, and Sunday’s rain out provided the latest twist in the soap opera. Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine is using the postponement to skip Bard’s turn in the rotation. This makes perfect sense. Bard has never thrown 80 innings in a season as a professional, and it stands to reason that a few skipped starts here and there will help keep him fresh. In fact, it’s likely one of the reasons that the team slotted him in the fifth spot in the rotation, as that is the spot that can be skipped most frequently. But doing so is a delicate act. You don’t want Bard going so long between outings that he gets blasted his next time out. To that end, Valentine announced that Bard would be available out of the bullpen during Boston’s series in Minnesota this week. This also makes perfect sense. If he is not needed, he can simply get his work in in the bullpen. But if the situation warrants it, he can contribute during the games.
Where things get murky is where Valentine admitted that there was “some thought” to permanently returning Bard to the bullpen. As I noted last week, Bard has shown promise in his first two turns in the rotation, and has done nothing to deserve to be dropped from it. Furthermore, adding Bard to the bullpen isn’t going to be a magic elixir that cures everything, and having one of your better pitchers throw less innings over the course of the season weakens the pitching staff overall. But while such a proposition has been discussed, it has not yet been enacted. Valentine has said numerous times this spring that he has given thought to putting Bard back in the ‘pen, and at each turn he has kept him in the rotation, and three good starts in Pawtucket from Aaron Cook are unlikely to change that.
As I scroll through my Twitter feed, one thing that I keep reading about is who should be blamed for the team’s slow start. I’m not here to assign blame. In the big picture, the Red Sox went 4-10 against what are likely five of the seven best teams in the American League. There is little shame in that, even if the way in which the losses have come have raised the ire of Red Sox Nation and the snickering of the collective baseball nation. And while Valentine is able to work the media into a lather with just a few words, the team doesn’t seem to be panicking amidst the turmoil. They acquired Marlon Byrd on the cheap, and have called up Lars Anderson for one more shot at realizing his Red Sox dreams off the bench. Should Daniel Bard be permanently relegated to bullpen savior, the gnashing of teeth and rendering of garments may come to a simmering — and justified — boil. But that time has not yet come.
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