Aceves struggles; Red Sox yet to solidify rotation

Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves and Felix Doubront are fighting for a spot in the Boston Red Sox starting rotation.

The Boston Red Sox entered this spring with two rotation vacancies. Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard were the favorites going into camp, with a handful of veterans also making bids. With just about a week before opening day, those final two spots still appear to be up in the air.

Injuries to John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka have left a void in the starting five. Not exactly big shoes to fill. Dice-K hasn’t turned in a good season since 2008, and Lackey posted the worst ERA in modern baseball history last season.

Lackey will be shut down for the full season, probably mercifully in the eyes of many. Coming off Tommy John surgery, Dice-K may be back pitching this season, but who can say at what level of effectiveness, though.

Even if he comes back healthy, the Sox can’t count on that until at least June. Bobby Valentine did spend did spend time managing in Japan, so perhaps that can aide in Dice-K’s revival.

Bard, despite some underwhelming pitching thus far, should end up starting. Even if just for April to see how he responds. The idea of having his fastball coming at opponents over six or seven innings will prove too much to pass up.

One knock against Bard is his manager has yet to endorse his move to a new role. Valentine hasn’t ruled out returning him as a set-up man. All signs indicate that he’ll make the transition, but Valentine hasn’t declared one way or the other.

Aceves did not do himself any favors during Saturday’s outing. In just three innings, he gave up nine runs. After walking the leadoff batter, things went terribly wrong. He gave up 10 hits, including three homers. Add a couple wild pitches and a hit batsman, not at all how Valentine hoped things would go.

Surviving through just 58 pitches couldn’t have helped his chances for transitioning to starter. Hopes had to be that he could stretch the outing to five, maybe six innings. And just when he seemed to be separating himself from the bunch.

Saturday’s outing reinforces what many have thought all along: Aceves is better suited for the bullpen. In four spot starts last year, he had a 5.14 ERA, compared to 2.03 in relief. Not to mention how valuable he was in bridging the gap to back end of the pen.

Unlike his counterpart Bard, there doesn’t seem to be someone ready to fill Aceves’s role in the pen if he did move to the rotation. Mark Melancon should fill Bard’s innings — although Melancon has yet to live up to expectations, struggling to make outs this spring.

Who will take Aceves’s spot? Bobby Jenks? Doesn’t seem likely, considering he missed the majority of last season and rehab seems to be going slowly. Not to mention his escapade to a Fort Myers … ahem … ballet performance, that ended with his SUV ping ponging off some parked cars and a DUI.

One replacement option is Michael Bowden, who is throwing great. He is building off a decent September call-up by allowing just two runs in eight innings down in Florida. Also he is out of minor-league options, so the Sox need to make room for him somewhere or risk losing him on waivers.

Let’s assume that after Saturday’s performance, and his outstanding track record out of the pen, Aceves will not get moved into the rotation. The other candidates at the start of March were names like Aaron Cook, Andrew Miller, Vicente Padilla and Felix Doubront.

Injuries have helped to thin the herd. Cook got off to a late start and most likely won’t have completed enough work in time for opening day. Even when healthy, his stats aren’t all that impressive. He was able to ride his sinkerball to 16 victories and an All-Star appearance in 2008, but the second coming of Derek Lowe he most certainly is not.

Miller showed flashes of his first-round talent early on, not giving up a hit in three outings. Unfortunately he threw just one pitch against Toronto last week before leaving with a strained hamstring. The probability of him recovering to starting strength in April seems slim, making him another candidate for eating some of those relief innings the Sox got from Aceves.

He isn’t the only one dealing with a hamstring issue. Padilla has a strain of his own. Odds of him cracking the rotation weren’t strong anyway, but this injury will set him back. He’ll probably end up in a fight with Franklin Morales, hoping to break camp as a middle/long-relief option.

Doubront has worked his way into the conversation with solid execution this spring. He has yielded just three runs in his three starts, including an impressive six innings against Miami on Saturday. At just 24, he by far has the greatest upside of the group. The organization has long hoped he would step into the rotation, and he is making a solid case to do it.

A dark horse for the vacancy looms in Japan’s Junichi Tazawa. Another victim to elbow problems, Tazawa is hoping to come back from 2010’s Tommy John surgery. The first to forgo any time in the Japanese league, Tazawa has started for the big league in the past, but it’s doubtful he’ll be stretched out enough to enter the rotation come April. So far this spring, he’s only come out of the pen.

Perhaps the best option for the Sox is probably floating fishing lures rather than pitching down in Fort Myers. Tim Wakefield’s retirement may have come at an inopportune time for the Sox. His experience and ability to eat up innings probably would have been most welcome.

Due to a light April schedule, Valentine probably won’t have to make a decision right out of camp. The Sox probably won’t need a fifth starter until April 24, giving them a full extra month to allow someone to heal or emerge for the spot. Until then, Valentine should be able to get by with a 1-2-3 of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz. Bard should lock up the fourth spot to start things out. By the time they need it, expect Doubront to step in as the fifth starter.

Whether or not Bard and/or Doubront will hold rotation spots will have to play itself out in April and May. Aceves may yet get the opportunity to start this season; time will tell.

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