Calling any first-round pick a bust because of 22 games is a little strong, sure. But for every 100 pitchers who walk a batter an inning out of college, I'm not sure you can find more than a couple who eventually live up to their promise. Heck, I'm not sure if you can even find 100 pitchers who walked a batter an inning right out of college. Young pitchers are supposed to struggle with their command, but what Bard went through was extreme, like a Mountain Dew commercial crossed with Nick Neugebauer.
But there are a lot more Nick Neugebauers than Daniel Bards in the world. Well, no, actually. There was only one Nick Neugebauer, and he was fascinating. But you get the point. Sometimes guys who walk the world turn out just fine. Most of the time, they don't. There was every reason to believe that Bard was hurt or irreparably flawed.
He wasn't. He just didn't like starting. Or starting didn't like him. The next season, the Red Sox moved him to the bullpen. Instant success. The strikeouts shot up, and the walks dropped precipitously. Bard moved from the prospect wasteland to relevance again, becoming Baseball America's #98 prospect after the season. The next year, he was even better, moving from AAA to major-league setup man, a post he held for the next three years.
The condensed version: unmitigated failure as starter, successful as a reliever. But worrying too much about 2007 after three-plus seasons in the majors isn't a good idea. And the dream of the Red Sox was always to use Bard as a starter. It was a good time to try it again. He wasn't a 22-year-old straight out of UNC anymore -- surely those 192 games in the majors help make for a more experienced, less Neugebauery version of the same live arm. One that could help make for a viable starting pitcher over the next decade.
The early results are in. He isn't an unmitigated disaster. But for the first time in the majors, he isn't a successful pitcher, either. His strikeout percentage was chopped nearly in half -- 13.5 percent this year, 26.8 as a reliever. Some decline makes sense, but not a 50-percent reduction. And the walk rate shot up. Fewer strikes, more line drives allowed ... the only positive indicator is that he hasn't allowed a lot of home runs, and in some sabermetric circles, that might be considered a spot of luck; his xFIP is the third-worst in baseball.
So the Red Sox have to make a decision soon. Are they going to chase the dream of another low-cost, homegrown ace? Or are they going to yearn for the setup man they left behind for some latter-day Russ Ortiz? Heck if I know. But if the Red Sox were looking for lightning in a bottle, they didn't get it.
There are two factors that could affect Bard. The malaise of Clay Buchholz could keep Bard in the rotation; Bard's been a bit of a disappointment, but Buchholz has been a disaster.
The other factor is The Oswalt Paradigm, the conclusion to the thriller that's captivated audiences for the last few months. Well, a couple of people. Oswalt's agent, mostly. Roy Oswalt still makes a lot of sense for the Red Sox. It might make more sense to push Buchholz out of the rotation, but putting Bard back in the bullpen would have a greater chance at immediate success.
It's not as if Bard's start against the Orioles on Wednesday is some sort of bellwether, or that his rotation spot is in jeopardy. But the Red Sox have to be having second thoughts. It's only natural. And considering that Bard has about 296 games as a successful reliever (give or take a few duds), and 51 as an iffy-to-wretched starter, it'd be hard to blame them.