The criteria for the Fire Brand of the American League Award is as follows:
“The Fire Brand of the American League is a Red Sox player who exhibits character under pressure, an unassuming man who leaves the spotlight for other people but makes his indelible mark on the past season’s Boston Red Sox. A piece most people take for granted, but whom we would have missed dearly.”
In years past, the recipients of this award displayed widely varying skill sets, and enjoyed vastly different levels of professional prestige and notoriety. The rather eclectic mixture of players receiving the honor is part of what makes it an interesting and compelling distinction. Giving such an award to the team’s best player is both simplistic and easy. Identifying the player who’s contributions, though undervalued and unsung, were vital to the team’s success is a pretty special thing. This year’s recipient is no different.
Only those with the loosest interpretation of the term would consider Alfredo Aceves to be a superstar. He’s neither an ace starting pitcher, nor a closer; a middle of the rotation starter, nor a dominate set up man. Instead, he toiled in the bowels of the pitching staff for much of the year. Often times, he was called upon to either soak up innings during garbage time of blowouts, or make spot starts to replace an injured starting pitcher. Though expectations existed, they weren’t tremendously high. His job during these appearances was merely to pitch “well enough” to keep Terry Francona from burning through his bullpen. His job was thankless and forgettable; one that most players hope they never fill and one that most fans overlook. Still, it was his, and he performed it admirably.
After the All-Star break, Aceves started earning opportunities to pitch in higher leverage situations out of the bullpen. His biggest break came when the club’s designated seventh inning reliever, Matt Albers, began to falter amid a flurry of bad luck, poor location, and homer happy tendencies. Slowly but surely, Francona started calling for Aceves in tight spots more frequently. By September, when Tito had few trustworthy pitchers available in his bullpen, Aceves became his go to guy. He made 12 appearances, pitched 25 innings, and produced a 1.80 ERA and 20/10 K/BB ratio. Even more impressively, when the Red Sox were on the verge of collapse, he answered the call in each of the last four games, locked down crucial innings, and nearly carried the Red Sox into the playoffs.
The fact that Aceves was even on the Red Sox at all in 2011 is a bit of a surprise. After putting together an outstanding 2009 season for the Yankees (10-1, 3.54/3.75, 69/16 K/BB in 84 innings), he was limited to pitching only 12 innings in 2010 due to a broken clavicle. Despite the injury, he was a versatile pitcher capable of filling multiple roles, and most insiders expected him to play a major role in the Yankees 2011 bullpen. Then in a move few understood, Brian Cashman unceremoniously non-tendered Aceves in an effort to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for one of their more promising younger prospects. While this move certainly would have been defensible in many other cases, the fact an arm as talented and serviceable as Aceves was allowed to walk without compensation came off as a little foolish.* This was especially true given the Yankees’ need for pitching in both the rotation at bullpen at the time. Their loss turned out to be a huge gain for the Red Sox. On February 8th, they signed him to a major league deal, and the rest is history.
*Honestly, it was probably Cashman’s only real mistake that entire offseason.
Looking forward to the 2012 season, many possibilities await Aceves. With two gaping holes existing at the back of the rotation, he’ll be on the short list of players (along with Daniel Bard and probably a free agent or two) that will be given an opportunity to contend for a spot. If he doesn’t end up in the rotation, he’ll most certainly be given a shot at nailing down a key, high leverage bullpen role as the club’s seventh or eighth inning guy. Either way, it appears his days as a long reliever and mop up man are over for the time being. That’s a good thing. As good as he was filling that important (but often overlooked) role, I’d much rather see him pitching situations where he’ll have a much greater day-to-day impact.