November 15, 2011

Tom Caron: Bard, closer or starter?

BOSTON – The Jonathan Papelbon era is over.

For the first time since 2003, Red Sox fans now wonder who will be finishing games in the coming season. Will it be Daniel Bard, or a closer currently sweating out the free-agent market?

Ben Cherington, the new GM, made it clear it's not Bard's job.

At least not yet. Cherington told reporters over the weekend that he was "not ready to commit" to making Bard a closer at this point.

It's easy to understand. Bard, long considered the team's next closer, had a horrific September.

He went 0-4 with a 10.64 ERA, a big part of the reason the Sox blew a 91/2-game wild-card lead and didn't make the playoffs.

Bard appeared in 11 games that month, and Boston lost eight. He blew three saves that month, two the rest of the year.

A bad month doesn't wipe away a strong start to Bard's career, but it has to give you concern.

There aren't many other in-house candidates to take over the job, unless you're convinced Bobby Jenks will be rejuvenated after suffering a host of physical ailments last season. Jenks appeared in 19 games, ultimately being forced to end the season when a clot was found in his lung.

There are plenty of options available on the free-agent market.

Heath Bell is a three-time All-Star, and saved 43 games for a bad Padres team that only won 71 games all season. He knows what it's like to step into the void left behind by a dominant closer -- three years ago he replaced Trevor Hoffman in San Diego.

Hoffman retired as the all-time saves leader and was the Padres closer for 14 seasons.

Bell would be the most attractive option, but there are other pitchers who would be cheaper.

Ryan Madson is three years younger than Bell, and will be highly motivated to prove he's an elite closer after the Phillies did an about-face and signed Papelbon after reportedly being close to a deal with Madson.

Joe Nathan was one of the game's best closers but could not regain his form last season following Tommy John surgery. Francisco Cordero, Jonathan Broxton, David Aardsma and Jon Rauch would all be relatively inexpensive.

The Sox may bring in several pitchers with closing experience and let them battle it out for the job in Fort Myers, Fla., in February.

Cherington left that door open on Friday when he told reporters he thought it was important to have a defined closer on opening day, but not during spring training.

And, while the closer's role is vitally important to a team that wants to contend, it might not be the most important pitching situation facing Cherington.

The Sox have two starters recovering from Tommy John surgery, and need to add starting pitchers. Alfredo Aceves could be one, Bard another.

Several reports suggest the Sox are considering moving Bard out of the bullpen, even though he has never started a major league game.

Moving either would create a bigger void in the bullpen, putting more emphasis on finding a closer.

We don't know what that bullpen will look like next season. What we do know is that it will be strange watching Papelbon pitch in the National League.

He was intimidating on the mound, crazy off the field and always accountable in the clubhouse.

He will be a very tough act to follow.

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.

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