<img class="alignright" style="margin-left: 3px; margin-right: 3px;" src="http://www3.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Boston+Red+Sox+Photo+Day+KmgjteYNs0sl.jpg" alt="Is Daniel Bard ready to take over as the Red Sox next closer?

That was the first question that popped into the heads of many of the Red Sox faithful the moment that Jonathan Papelbon agreed to sign with the Phillies. While there are still a number of “closers” available in the free agent market, there is no guarantee that the Sox will indeed lure one to take over as their closer in 2012. And, let’s be honest, as far as internal options to take over the role, it’s Bard and that’s it.

Bard tied Mike Adams for the ninth most fWAR (Wins Above Replacement via FanGraphs) in the major leagues last season and, other than Papelbon, Bard was the only Sox reliever to post over one win above replacement. His 1.8 fWAR was almost a full win above replacement over Alfredo Aceves, who was the next closest Sox reliever in that regard.

The Progression

Bard came up in 2009 and posted solid numbers in 49.1 big league innings. He struck out about 11.5 batters per nine innings, but also walked four per nine while ending with a 3.65 ERA and 3.38 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). That season, Bard threw only five change-ups out of 855 pitches. Then, in 2010, he began to mix in the change more often, throwing it about 5.5 percent of the time and getting opposing batters to whiff on the pitch about 17 percent of the time. The comfort and use of the change increased yet again this past season as Bard went to the offering about seven percent of the time.

While the increase in use of his change-up has certainly helped his overall numbers, Bard has also started to use his slider more often (about 25 percent of the time in 2011). That pitch generated whiffs at a rate of about 19 percent in 2011.

In other words, the player that came up in 2009 and relied on simply overpowering people with his fastball has become more of a “pitcher” than a thrower. As part of that transition, Bard has done a tremendous job of improving his control/command, progressing from a walk rate of over 10 percent in both 2009 and 2010, to a walk rate of just over eight percent this season. Each year, Bard has increased his ground-ball rate while lowering his rate of home runs allowed.

Perhaps just as important as the improvement in Bard’s overall K/BB numbers is his improvement in performance against left-handed hitters. In 2009 and 2010 Bard walked about five batters per nine innings pitched. In 2010, he held a poor 1.5 K/BB rate against lefties. While his strikeout rate has yet to improve against lefties (about 18 percent over the last two seasons), his walk rate took a terrific turn for the better in 2011, moving to just under seven percent and his K/BB rate to lefties last season was a very respectable 2.6.

The Question Marks

Bard fell apart this past September, posting a 10.64 ERA while walking nine batters in only 11 innings. Unfortunately for Bard, when he allowed those runners to reach base, more often than not, they came around to score — his strand rate was a mere 33.3 percent in that fateful month. Closers aren’t supposed to break down under pressure. They’re supposed to come up big at the biggest moments. Last season Bard had a 1.87 FIP in low leverage situations and a 3.66 FIP in high leverage situations, not that that’s horrible mind you. However, as a point of reference, last season Jonathan Papelbon had a 1.57 FIP in low leverage situations and a 0.59 FIP in high leverage situations. For his career, Paps has a 2.57 FIP in low leverage situations and a 2.54 FIP in high leverage situations.

Though 2011 was a great step forward for Bard in terms of his performance against left-handed batters, there is at least some worry that his walk rate against lefties might regress to previous levels.

Aside from trying to find other ways to nitpick Bard, there are certainly many more positives than negatives.

Can Bard Close?

Why, of course he can! Bard does many things that are closer related: he throws hard — an average fastball velocity of 97.3 percent, which was the fourth fastest of all relievers in 2011 and less than one MPH slower than the average heat of Arlodis Chapman —  he strikes people out (over one batter per nine in his career) and he has a beard. OK, that last one is certainly not a requirement, but it adds to closer persona anyway, especially when said closer throws upwards of 100 MPH.

Bard doesn’t come without some question marks, but he clearly has top-end bullpen stuff. If he takes over closing duties, he should find plenty of success. He has already progressed each season in the majors and, At age 26, there’s room for even more improvement.