Bard, Epstein reunion not surprising

BOSTON -- It was the kind of move Theo Epstein loved to make when he was with the Boston Red Sox -- low risk, potentially high reward -- so it surprised no one on Yawkey Way when Epstein’s current team, the Chicago Cubs, claimed reliever Daniel Bard on waivers Wednesday after the Sox had designated him for assignment.

If Bard is able to restart a career that literally careened out of control in his last two years in the Red Sox organization, his first chance apparently will come with the Cubs, where he will be reunited with the people who made him a first-round draft choice in 2006: Epstein, now the president of baseball operations for the Cubs; Jed Hoyer, the Cubs GM who was a top Epstein aide; and Jason McLeod, the senior vice president, scouting and player development, who was the scouting director who made Bard the 28th pick of the 2006 draft.

"Not surprised that the Cubs would claim him, given the familiarity with Theo and Jed, who drafted him here," Red Sox manager John Farrell said Wednesday afternoon. "And I guess the most important thing is we wish him well and hope he gets back on track. There’s still a good pitcher in there once he gets back on track."

Bard has not been the same pitcher since he was converted to become a starter in 2012 after making 192 relief appearances for the Red Sox, including a two-year stretch (2010-11) when he was one of the most dominant setup men in the American League. In 2011, he set a club record for most consecutive scoreless outings with 25, three more than Koji Uehara’s current streak.

No Sox pitcher had ever made as many relief appearances before making his first start, but Bard was excited about the transition for the 2012 season, one that was endorsed by GM Ben Cherington and the baseball operations staff looking to upgrade the Red Sox rotation with a young power arm. Incoming manager Bobby Valentine expressed reservations about the move, at least privately, but Bard made the rotation coming out of camp, winning the fifth spot in the rotation.

The experiment was not an immediate disaster; he made 10 turns in the rotation and had a 4-6 record with a 5.30 ERA in those starts when he was demoted to the minors on June 5. That wasn’t even the highest ERA on the staff; Clay Buchholz had a 6.58 ERA at the time.

But there were warning signs. Bard made four starts with two walks or fewer, but walked at least four in the other six starts, including six free passes in just 1 2/3 innings in his last start, June 3 in Toronto. His velocity also was down noticeably, which showed up in two ways: His K’s per 9 IP was 5.56, well below the 9.1 per 9 he had in 2011, and he gave up a career-high nine home runs in just 59 1/3 innings.

Things went from bad to worse in Triple-A Pawtucket, where he was returned to the bullpen but became even more erratic, posting a 7.03 ERA in 31 appearances, while walking 29 and giving up 31 hits in 32 innings.

He came to camp this spring optimistic that a reunion with Farrell, who was his pitching coach in 2010, might help him recapture his previous form, and at the end of March insisted that he was over the issues from the year before and said his mechanics were "pretty close to being locked in."

But the velocity remained 5 or 6 miles per hour lower than when he was at his best, and the Sox sent Bard to Double-A Portland because, they said, he had options remaining. They also they wanted him to focus less on results, which might have been the case the previous season in Pawtucket, and more on refining his mechanics.

Instead, Bard regressed, giving up 17 hits and walking 13 in just 12 2/3 innings in Portland before being shut down on May 15. He subsequently discovered an abdominal muscle tear, and when he returned to the mound it was in late August in Fort Myers with Boston’s rookie league entry. He pitched a scoreless inning in his first outing, but his second outing was a disaster, five walks and two wild pitches in two-thirds of an inning. He asked the Sox for the chance to continue, which they gave him during the short-season at Lowell, where he walked four and threw a wild pitch on Aug. 31.

That would be Bard's last performance in the Sox organization. Cherington designated him for assignment on Sept. 3, and the Cubs put in their waiver claim Wednesday.

Bard is still only 28, and bounced back from a similarly rough experience in his first year in pro ball, when he averaged better than a walk an inning (78 walks in 75 innings). The Sox clearly made a decision that they did not see Bard being a useful pitcher going forward, otherwise they would have found another means to clear a spot on their 40-man roster.

Can Bard ever be an effective pitcher again?

"I’m not going to say that he can’t," Farrell said. "There’s still a player and a pitcher there that’s motivated. And yet any time there’s activity disrupted by an injury, it’s going to slow that process. Time was of the essence to us; we needed a roster spot. Based on what we saw the last couple of years, it needs to be built back gradually, and however long that takes is the unknown in this."