Daniel Bard the Wild Card in Red Sox’ Bullpen


Oct 22, 2009

Daniel Bard the Wild Card in Red Sox' Bullpen The Red Sox have a lot of questions to answer about their bullpen this offseason.

For starters, there's their closer, Jonathan Papelbon.

Pap made $6.25 million last season in his latest one-year deal with the ballclub — he's been one of baseball's most dominating closers for four years now, though, and he's sure to demand a raise. Or a trade. After a nightmarish Game 3 of the ALDS this month, the closer's future could be in doubt.

Then there's Billy Wagner.

The former All-Star closer, last seen in a Red Sox uniform holding down a setup role, has threatened to retire. Empty threat? Perhaps. But if Wagner does decide to play next season, no one yet knows where or in what capacity.

There's still a lot left to be resolved. The Red Sox' front office has plenty of work to do this offseason, and everyone in New England will be watching.

No one will watch more closely than Daniel Bard.

While Papelbon and Wagner are closely monitoring their futures with the Red Sox, they're not the only ones with their jobs at stake. Bard, the 24-year-old righty who dazzled the Red Sox and their fans in his rookie season, is waiting to find out what's next for him.

There's little doubt that with his potential, Bard could conceivably be a big league closer right away. He has an overpowering fastball that regularly hits 98 or 99 on the gun, and his fast-developing slider has become a solid secondary pitch. With that arsenal alone, he could be a lights-out guy in the ninth inning.

In his first major league season, Bard piled up 63 strikeouts and only 22 walks in 49 1/3 innings. It's scary to think how good he could be with a little experience.

His general manager agrees.

"He’s still tweaking his breaking ball. He’s got a good breaking ball, but it probably isn’t where it will be eventually," Theo Epstein said on WEEI on Thursday morning. "This is somebody who is still really a work in progress, and while he may have the ability to do something, it might not be the best thing for the long-term and his career if we force him into something."

But it's unclear whether Bard will get a shot at something more. The only real experience he's had so far has been as a setup man — he's a seventh-inning reliever, or maybe the eighth on a good day. Terry Francona has yet to trust him to headline their star-studded bullpen.

Bard deserves a shot at the big time. He's a 45-save season waiting to happen. But unless something drastic happens this offseason, no one should be holding their breath.

There's a good chance that Wagner is out of the picture — come next season, he's likely gone. But Papelbon is the real concern. The Red Sox know how valuable Papelbon has been to them over the past four years, and they're not likely to ship him away.

The Red Sox have had a lot of stellar relievers manning the setup role in their bullpen. They've been through Wagner, through Hideki Okajima, through Mike Timlin. Some distinguished names have passed through that spot on Francona's depth chart.

Bard has a chance to be better than any of them. But he's still young, and he's got plenty of time to get to the promised land.

Eventually, he'll be a big-time closer on a big-time playoff contender. That's where he belongs, and it's plain to see.

But in the meantime, the best advice the Red Sox can give Bard is to be a team player and wait patiently. Call it rookie hazing — he's still got to pay his dues before he reaches the next level.

Daniel Bard is destined for bigger and better things. He has it in him to succeed at the highest level. It may not be tomorrow, but eventually, his day will come.

For now, Bard can pride himself on being the best setup man in the American League. That's a goal he can reach right away.

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