By BRENDAN McGAIR
As explained earlier in the week, relief pitchers Michael Bowden and Scott Atchison stand on the threshold of an interesting 2012 season. Both are out of options, which can be seen as a double-edged sword. (Disclaimer: please read this – http://www.woonsocketcall.com/node/4319  – before continuing on.)
On one end, the days of constant shuffling between the majors and minors have ceased. Over the past two seasons, the Red Sox have enjoyed the luxury of moving Atchison and Bowden liberally and without repercussion, i.e. exposing the pair to waivers upon farming them back to Triple-A Pawtucket.
There’s another realm to consider now that Atchison and Bowden are option free. They may start the season under Boston’s control, but given their new circumstances, it’s quite possible to see one or perhaps even both of them pitching for another organization at some point this season. That, of course, is contingent upon the Sox sending them down, which in turn would open the door for any MLB team to swoop in.
However it may be, the fates of Atchison and Bowden figure to become much clearer if either right-hander can follow in the footsteps and emerge as the next Alfredo Aceves, whose versatility to bounce back and forth between rotation and bullpen arguably made him the most valuable arm the 2011 Red Sox had.
(Note: Tim Wakefield, someone who has long been lauded as the consummate pro, made 23 starts and 10 appearances out of the bullpen last season after making 19 starts and 13 relief outings in 2010.)
It just wasn’t that Aceves was a dependable arm and that the native of Mexico logged 114 innings with four of his 55 appearances coming in a starting capacity. The 29-year-old was the definition of effectiveness. Yes, he posted a 5.14 ERA as a starter compared to 2.03 as a reliever, but Aceves also averaged just over five innings per start – the Red Sox went 1-3 in his starts – meaning he more than held up his end of saving the bullpen from further wear and tear by extending himself to the point that he become eligible for the decision, one way or another.
Aceves figures to get a serious look as a starting pitcher during spring training. Depending on what happens, a spot could open up for either Atchison or Bowden as Boston’s long-relief option/emergency spot starter.
The 35-year-old Atchison has been thrust into a few tights spots since joining the Red Sox organization. On June 12, 2010, Atchison took the place of a scratched Daisuke Matsuzaka, tossing three innings against the Phillies in a 10-2 Red Sox win that is best remembered for Daniel Nava connecting for a grand slam on his first-ever swing in the big leagues.
Atchison earned savior status once again a few weeks later in San Francisco. After Clay Buchholz was forced to tag out after one inning upon injuring his hamstring while running the bases, Atchison came in and ate up 2 1/3 innings in an eventual 4-2 Boston win. Last season he made a spot start for the PawSox on Opening Day, lasting 4 2/3 innings after that night’s scheduled starter, Aceves, was summoned to Boston.
“I haven’t started since early in my minor-league career, but in a pinch I feel like I can do it and give the team some innings,” Atchison said. “As a reliever, I feel that my versatility is one of my strengths. I can pitch one inning, pitch multiple innings, just whatever is needed at the time. I feel I can fill all those roles just like Alfredo did and he did so very well. Hopefully they see that as something valuable.”
Drafted as a starter in 2005, Bowden made the move to the bullpen during the middle of the 2010 season, the belief at the time that a switch to a relief role would better allow him to succeed in the majors. The 2011 campaign saw Bowden record a team-best 16 saves with Pawtucket with all 41 of his appearances coming as a reliever.
To the 25-year-old, he wholeheartedly believes that if given the proper shot, he can emerge as a dependable arm a la Aceves.
“I feel like I can definitely [juggle starting and relieving]. I just have not had that opportunity or been put in a position to do that,” Bowden said. “I have a lot of experiences starting games and closing at Triple A and would feel comfortable doing whatever they want if that’s what they want me to do.”