Once among the best young relief pitchers in baseball, Boston Red Sox right-hander Daniel Bard looked lost last year during an attempted conversion to the starting rotation.

Although he has made great strides to reclaim his career this spring, it appears he still has work to do and will likely start the 2013 season in the minors. 

The 27-year-old Bard is a former first-round draft choice of the Red Sox. He posted a combined 2.88 ERA and 9.73 strikeouts per nine innings in his first three major league seasons, which were spent exclusively in the bullpen. 

Boston decided to convert him to a starter in 2012, in large part because of his big fastball, which FanGraphs.com indicates has averaged nearly 97 mph during his career.

The experiment was a disaster. Bard was just 5-6 with a 6.22 ERA in 17 games (10 starts) last year, while experiencing massive lapses in command and a demotion to the minors. 

He entered spring training this year without a roster spot and few expectations. Although he hasn’t been entirely consistent, the overall results have been much better. Once again pitching in relief, he has allowed four hits, three walks and three runs in six innings, while striking out seven. 

He was unscored upon in his first five innings, before allowing three runs in his last major league spring appearance.

WEEI’s Alex Speier reported that Bard struggled in a Double-A spring training game Friday, allowing two walks, a hit and a hit batter in two-thirds of an inning. 

Bard told Speier that regardless of the numbers, he’s been pleased with his results: 

I feel like I’m ready. I wasn’t to get back to pitching big innings for this team, important innings. It’s just a matter of getting out there consistently… 

I feel like I’m in such a better place. Velocity is coming back up. I feel like I’m in control out there… I feel like I have the stuff that I’m used to pitching with the last couple of years, the last few years.

Despite his optimism, it appears that barring an injury, he’s likely to be sent to the minors to start the season.

The Red Sox are expected to have one of the deepest bullpens in baseball, according to The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo.

Additionally, Bard still has a minor league option left, while Clayton Mortensen, perhaps his biggest competition, does not.

Boston’s 25-man roster won’t be set until the April 1 season opener against the New York Yankees is upon us, but The Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham projects that Bard will not make the initial cut, writing, “Daniel Bard is well down the road of shedding the woes that wrecked last season. But he’s not all the way there yet and does have options, so look for him to start the year in Pawtucket.”  

Pitching in the minors may be perceived as a punishment or an indication the team lacks confidence in Bard, but that’s not necessarily the case. With their bullpen depth, there’s no reason to push him, and he can continue working himself back to his previous form without the same intense scrutiny from the Boston media. 

Boston general manager Ben Cherington explained to the Boston Herald’s Scott Lauber that while the team is happy with Bard’s progress, they’re not going to rush him:

He’s a lot further ahead than where he ended the season. Probably still not all the way to where he wants to be, but sort of in the range of possibilities, he’s a lot closer to where he wants to be than where he was struggling last year. There’s definitely been a few outings where he’s looked pretty close, and I think he’s feeling gradually better about himself all the time. So we’ll see.

The nice thing, from my standpoint anyway, about his spring, is that we haven’t talked about it as much. At least it doesn’t seem like we have. He’s been able to just get his work and be a pitcher getting ready for the season.

Cherington refused to confirm to Lauber where Bard will start the season, but certainly made it sound like the minors are the most likely destination, stating, “This stuff tends to work itself out as time goes by. Our hope was that we had enough depth of good arms that by Opening Day we’ll have a lot of good options in the pen.”

Bard may not be with Boston at the start of the season, but if he continues working his way back, he could get the call soon.    

Statistics via Baseball-Reference 

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