The Red Sox are thinking outside the box and inside the organization when it comes to Daniel Bard's development in 2013, a plan that takes the hard-throwing but inconsistent reliever back to the Eastern League.
Bard, who emerged as a potential Major League closer in 2008 but regressed last year after joining Boston's rotation, lost his battle for the final spot in the Red Sox's bullpen this spring and will start the season at Double-A Portland.
Why the drastic move? Bard's mechanics have been erratic, his velocity has slipped and he had options remaining on his contract, allowing Boston to let him work his issues out in the Minors rather than under the Fenway Park microscope. Portland made more sense than Triple-A Pawtucket since it'll allow the right-hander to be reunited with Portland pitching coach Bob Kipper, a former big league left-hander who coached Bard during his emergence as a dominant reliever in 2008 at Class A Greenville.
Both Bard and Kipper know what's at stake and the expectations from above.
"I set a pretty high standard for myself with the way I pitched for a couple of years -- the velocity I pitched at, the results that I was able to get," Bard told WEEI last month. "I think people think, 'If he's not there, there's still room to go.' At the same time, I feel good. The results have been really good for the most part, if you take out one outing."
But Bard owned a 6.75 ERA over eight innings in Spring Training. He gave up three hits, three runs and a walk in one inning against the Marlins before being reassigned to Portland.
Kipper, who also coached Bard during his rough 2007 campaign at Class A Advanced Lancaster, said he has faith the right-hander will work his way back soon from the Sea Dogs' bullpen.
"If I exercise my common sense and be practical, I'd think that what he went through in 2007 and 2008 can be a helpful tool for him," Kipper told WEEI. "It's not a question of, 'Can I recover.' It's, 'Well, I've done it before and I'll do it again.' Without really knowing where he's at, I'd like to think that he's confident that he can recover, rebound and re-establish the dominance in his game."
Bard has support from Boston, too. Not surprising for a guy capable of throwing 100 mph.
"I've seen tremendous improvement from him," Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves told MLB.com. "He's healthy and the velocity is back. I think there's more in the tank. He's in the process of getting back."
Bard spoke of his optimism of starting the year in Boston, but he was prepared for being reassigned, especially after his competition this spring, Clayton Mortensen, was out of options and would have been placed on waivers if the Sox chose to send him to the Minors instead.
Last year, Bard went 5-6 with a 6.22 ERA in 17 Major League games, including 10 starts. It's believed the starting experiment probably led him to tweak his mechanics and develop bad habits in trying to maintain velocity. Inconsistent, Boston sent him down to Pawtucket to iron out his issues, but he didn't fare much better, going 3-2 with a 7.03 ERA in 31 games.
"I think I've proven -- hopefully, I've proven to everyone this spring -- that I've put last year behind me," Bard said. "Hopefully, I've put it behind everyone else in their minds, too. I've moved on and I'm ready to have a good year this year."
Kipper knows it won't be a quick fix, though.
"These things aren't going to happen overnight. They didn't happen overnight in 2007 into 2008. There were things that progressed in time," Kipper said of Bard's previous transformation.
"You get another month and a half, two months of him, we should see incredible results," Nieves added. "He's on the right track. It's just not all happening all at once."
Beyond Bard: Barnes and Britton: Bard's presence in Portland will hardly be Kipper's only assignment this season. Matt Barnes, the Red Sox's No. 3 prospect, will join the Sea Dogs for his Double-A debut after an up and down 2012 campaign in which he dominated at Class A but hit some bumps in the second half following a promotion to the Carolina League.
"I thought the first half was awesome," Barnes told MLB.com. "If I could do that again, I'd be really happy. But the second half is actually where I think I learned more about myself and more how to pitch rather than just throw a baseball. It allowed me to develop the changeup, which has become a huge part of my game now. Overall, it was a great learning experience."
Barnes, a 2011 first-round pick, went 7-5 with a 2.86 ERA in 25 starts in his first Minor League season. A UConn product and Connecticut native, he won't be far from home in Portland.
Then there's Drake Britton, Boston's No. 12 prospect, who made 16 starts at Portland last season but returns after he was arrested last month on suspicion of driving under the influence. The left-hander was 7-12 with a 4.44 ERA in 26 outings (24 starts) at two levels last year.
Akron is thinking big, if you haven't seen: The Aeros, reigning Eastern League champs, will celebrate their supremacy this season with a new video scoreboard at Canal Park. No, not just a new one, the biggest one in Double-A, the team says. Akron, an Indians affiliate, dropped $1.65 million on the new outfield screen.
Don't anger the ostriches: Reading, as iconic an Eastern League franchise as there is, made a bold move this offseason by rebranding itself as the Fightin Phils, complete with new logos, including one of a rather irritated ostrich.
"There's a lot of fun to be had with a large flightless bird, in the same way that the [Lehigh Valley] IronPigs and [Richmond] Flying Squirrels have a lot of fun with their names," Fightin Phils general manager Scott Hunsicker said.
Stroman will wait: New Hampshire fans will be treated to watching Blue Jays first-round pick Marcus Stroman this season, but it won't be on Opening Day. The right-hander out of Duke is excited to begin his Double-A career, but he has to finish serving a 50-game suspension for using a banned stimulant he said he took accidentally in an over-the-counter workout supplement. The 5-foot-9 reliever, who's comfortable with Tom Gordon comparisons, went 3-0 with a 3.26 ERA in 15 outings last year. He'll likely take the mound for his Double-A debut in May.