The question regarding Mark Melancon was supposed to be whether he was suited to close or set up. It was not expected to be whether he belonged in the big leagues or the minors.
Yet just four historically bad games into his Red Sox career, the script has already flipped. On Tuesday night, as the Red Sox were mauled, 18-3, by the Rangers for the most lopsided defeat by the franchise since 2000, Melancon’s performance was the most cringe-worthy, a sign of a player whose season had gone quickly off the rails.
Melancon inherited an 8-2 deficit in the top of the eighth inning. Manager Bobby Valentine wanted the right-hander to toss a couple of innings to lock in some of the mechanical tweaks he’d been working on prior to the game with pitching coach Bob McClure. Instead, Melancon lasted six batters, retiring none, allowing all to score and giving up three home runs before a merciful removal that was treated mercilessly by a Fenway crowd that sent cascades of boos upon the 26-year-old.
It was history of a horrible sort. Melancon tied a major league record by allowing three home runs without recording a single out. He set a new Red Sox record for relievers by giving up a run in his fourth straight appearance of one inning or less to start his career with the team.
After allowing four hits (three homers) and two walks, his ERA is 49.50. Melancon has permitted 12 of the 18 batters he’s faced this year to reach base, and he’s allowed five home runs -- matching his total yield in 74 1/3 innings from a year ago -- in his two innings of work.
“He’s really concerned. I’m very concerned, obviously,” manager Bobby Valentine said after the game. “He’s not getting the swing and miss. It seems like he’s a little -- he’s searching right now and so are we.”
Given that search, Valentine was asked whether sending Melancon -- who has a minor league option left -- down to the minors might be a consideration.
“At this time, you have to consider everything,” Valentine said.
Melancon highlights the unsettled early-season shape of the Red Sox. There were several roster questions about the team as it wrapped up spring training, but also several players of excellent pedigree who stood as support beams around whom the rest of the roster could be constructed in mix-and-match fashion.
The early part of 2012 was supposed to be one in which the Red Sox would identify more answers to some of the questions that confronted them. The team would gain further definition to the back of a rotation meant to complement Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz. The bullpen would take shape behind closer Andrew Bailey and setup man Melancon. The lineup would gain structure after a top-five grouping (Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis) expected to be as good as any in the game.
Yet early in 2012, some of those pillars already have crumbled, and so less than two weeks deep into the season the Sox face far more questions now than they did coming out of spring training.
Bailey required surgery on the doorstep to the season and likely is out until August. Ellsbury is out after a subluxation of his right shoulder, lost for at least a month or two. Carl Crawford’s rehab, though now progressing to the point where he is finally getting into games, has suffered two relatively minor setbacks, and so his return has been pushed back beyond the expectations of the team when he underwent his surgery.
It is not just matters of health that are sullying the landscape confronting the Sox. Melancon’s struggles have been the most dramatic, but he is not alone in performing poorly. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia is just 2-for-24 (.083) to open the year. Kevin Youkilis, after going 0-for-4 with four strikeouts (matching a career high), is hitting .176 with a .443 OPS.
Even Lester, Beckett and Buchholz have had a collectively checkered start to the year. The Sox are the only team in the majors to have endured three starts that resulted in seven or more runs being allowed. Lester, Beckett and Buchholz each have one such outing on their resume for their season.
In fairness, there have been some early-season surprises of a different sort for the Sox as well, players whose contributions have exceeded expectations. Franklin Morales has looked spectacular in the bullpen, a pitcher capable of handling the setup responsibilities that had been earmarked for Melancon. Mike Aviles has been better defensively at shortstop than anyone likely expected when he was subjected to a daily juxtaposition with Jose Iglesias in the spring. Right fielder Ryan Sweeney has looked excellent in the early going, hitting .406 and rocketing doubles to all fields.
Still, with the Sox now 4-7 and having spent every day of this season in last place, it is the questions that occupy the most prominent position in evaluating the club. Valentine indirectly conceded that point when he made an attempt to identify a silver lining when asked to describe his team’s startlingly lopsided defeat late Tuesday night.
“I can’t describe this one,” he said. “Sweeney swung the bat real well. He’s been playing very well without any notice. Too bad.”
As he said that, Valentine’s expression was one of some bewilderment, and understandably so. He, general manager Ben Cherington and bench coach Tim Bogar met at some length following Tuesday’s game, discussing the state of a roster has revealed more shortcomings than answers in the first 11 games of the season.
Melancon is the most glaring example. He was the first major acquisition by Cherington this offseason, a pitcher who emerged as a sometimes-dominant reliever last year en route to claiming the closer’s job with the Astros, someone whom the Sox deemed worthy of a pair of potential big league regulars in Jed Lowrie (now the Astros' everyday shortstop after opening the year on the DL) and Kyle Weiland (off to an 0-2 start with an 8.44 ERA).
Melancon’s fastball/curveball/cutter combination resulted in both strikeouts and ground balls last year. The Sox were convinced his stuff would play against the best teams in the American League East. Thus far, the results suggest otherwise, even as members of the club tried to rally around a teammate whose struggles are glaring.
“He's a guy with great stuff, throwing 94, 95,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “He's just missing right now. Curveball is a good pitch. When you throw 95 mph and you mix it up with that curveball, but we've just got to locate all our pitches in order for the curveball to work.”
Melancon, too, was resolute in the face of adversity. Asked whether he thought that he could benefit from time in the minors, he responded, “I don't know how to answer that. I’m going to continue to work hard no matter where I'm at and get through it. I feel like something’s going to click. Mentally I feel good, physically I feel good. It’s close. I’m going to keep working hard.
“I've only had four outings but it seems like it’s just gotten out of hand quickly,” he added. “I think it’s close to coming back. It’s just figuring out what it is and going from there.”
The Sox bullpen might be fine without the right-hander. Even so, the fact that the Sox are in a position to consider sending him to the minors just four outings into his career with the club underscores the severity of his situation. The team acquired him to help anchor the bullpen for five seasons. Now, the original plan of turning Melancon loose in the late innings has yielded to one in which the team has to identify the right strategy for the short-term to ensure that his long-term future with the club isn’t jeopardized.
All of that said, the season still is in its extreme infancy. Roughly 93 percent of the year remains, plenty of time for the team to find answers to some of the issues it is now confronting.
For now, though, the Sox can derive little reassurance from the idea of the long stretch ahead. Too many sirens are sounding for the team to enjoy the idea of the open road.