The Red Sox finally will unveil their starting rotation to start the 2012 season on Sunday. That would be April 1 for those of you scoring at home.
But why did it take so long?
Jonathan Papelbon made his move back to the bullpen on March 22, 2007. Kyle Farnsworth made just two official spring training starts before ending his bid to become a starter for the Royals in 2010. And last year, the Rangers ended the Neftali Feliz experiment on March 25, after three official spring training starts.
This past week, we've seen Texas move Alexi Ogando from starter to reliever, while Wade Davis lost the battle for the final spot in the Rays' rotation and will start the season in Tampa Bay's bullpen.
But the Red Sox have allowed three pitchers -- Daniel Bard, Felix Doubront and Alfredo Aceves -- navigate into 80-plus pitch counts, with another, Aaron Cook, hovering around 70. This with just two spots available. As pitching coach Bob McClure suggested, it wasn't a progression that was necessarily planned, but was necessary.
"Usually they'll kind of separate themselves by now, which really hasn't happened," McClure said after Bard's Friday start. "They've all been pretty good, I think."
All four of the starting candidates have offered grounds for some optimism. But the delay also had to do with the deficiencies of each member of the group as well.
The bottom line was that the Red Sox had a pretty good idea what Bard and Aceves could do as relievers, so their spring training time (all of it) was better served trying to dissolve some of the mystery regarding their ability to start. The Sox knew the highs with each pitcher, and, thanks to this camp, they have seen the lows. And, most important, they have witnessed how each has responded to the discomfort of such depths.
Aceves had a horrific three-inning, nine-run outing on March 24 after cruising through most of spring training. But in the next start -- albeit against the equivalent of Toronto's Double-A talent -- he rebounded with a strong performance, complete with the fastball command he had lost the previous appearance, along with ample determination both in-game and post-game.
It was a six-inning test that wouldn't have been possible via the typical late-spring training relief outing. Relying on a Baseball-Reference.com nugget pointing out that Aceves' OPS-against jumped up to over .900 the second time through a batting order during his career nine regular season starts just wouldn't have been good enough if and when the rotation came calling. Live, in-person, 80-pitch soul-searching had to be added to the equation.
But it has been Bard's sometimes uncomfortable evolution that might have offered the biggest payoff.
A case certainly could have been made a few weeks before, when Bard was struggling through a 2 2/3-inning relief outing and then had his manager question his pitch selection the next time out, that it would have been wiser to just hand him the starting spot and let nature take its course.
But Friday allowed Bard to experience aspects of living the life of a major league pitcher to which he hadn't been privy. First was the out-of-the-ordinary spring training challenge that was pitching for something of importance. Whether it was the case or not, the pitcher took the mound with the feeling there was something significant at stake that afternoon at Hammond Stadium.
He had survived all kinds of pressure situations as a reliever, but nothing where he would be pitching for something well past his 50th offering.
"If that's the case, it's a good test," he said after his six-inning, 95-pitch outing. "A pressure of earning a spot in the rotation is not the same pressure of pitching a big game in September. But I do need to be able to handle this. I haven't been doing it that long. There was definitely that added feeling hanging over your head. It's good practice."
Credit for this part of the equation couldn't truly be given to the Red Sox decision-makers (as McClure pointed out), but offering the opportunity to find such a happenstance was due to their strategy.
"That's not what we set out to do," the Sox pitching coach said. "The pressure is more how they might receive it as far as fighting for that fourth or fifth spot. I think every time you go out there you should feel intense. Sometimes it's hard to do in spring training, but it's still competition. When you're fighting for a job I would say it's intense, and it should be. I don't know how much you can enjoy it, but you should enjoy some of it."
And then there was the chance for Bard to show that not only could he live the life of a starter with something on the line, but he could also do so while exhibiting qualities that wouldn't have been surfaced by going just a couple of innings.
For instance, one of the struggles Bard has faced in making his transformation is finding a consistent way to get left-handed hitters out. As a reliever, the answer was always a dominant fastball or occasional back-door slider or changeup. In 2011, he was good against lefties (.211 batting average against), but nowhere near as effective as he was vs. right-handed hitters (.136).
Facing more lefties had initially exposed Bard a bit earlier this spring training, with left-handed hitters managing a .325 average. But Friday he showed why his improved change-up (which he threw an estimated 10-15 times) has become so important, finishing off the fifth inning by dropping a devastating change-up for a called third strike.
No matter what he became, starter or reliever, Bard became a better pitcher because of this late-March exhibition game.
"He was able to pitch backwards," McClure said. "He was strike one with his offspeed when he had to be, and I think that's something you need to be able to do, although with that fastball you don't have to do it all the time. But if you have the ability to pitch backwards with that kind of fastball with other pitches it's just a plus."
As for Doubront, having him show his stuff deep into spring training was a no-brainer, even if he hadn't been so successful out of the gate. The lefty was out of options, had shown significant promise (despite his struggles last season) and … was a lefty.
After a subtle adjustment early in camp, allowing Doubront to land more on his toes and less on his heels, the pitcher became a favorite to not only make the team, but enter into the rotation, early on. The most transparent sign of his status within the organization could be found in the opinions of those pitchers sharing the clubhouse. Those were the ones who would mention Doubront first and foremost when identifying a favorite to win a job in the rotation.
But, after seven starts, we have a better idea of what Doubront can be than ever before.
That said, the official announcement still awaits on Sunday, with the state of the rotation having remained undefined for a simple reason.
"I kind of thought they would have come up with something, but I don't think anybody head and shoulders separated themselves," Bard said. "I think Doubront probably had the best spring. But there was nobody that really jumped out so you have to weigh your options as long as you can."
And so they did … all the way until April.