Pats will keep signing strategy

There are certainly plenty of question marks surrounding the Boston Red Sox.

But the key to their season will be Daniel Bard.

The flame-throwing righthander emerged as the primary setup man as a rookie last season: the late-inning reliever who was able to preserve the lead before turning the ball over to closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Setup men have become very important.

Bard is also seen as a possible replacement for Papelbon in the closer role if Papelbon eventually departs.

Bard, who often hit 100 miles-per hour on the radar gun, was 2-2 with a 3.65 earned run average with one save last season. In 49¤ innings, he gave up 41 hits and walked 22 while striking out 63.

The Red Sox have improved an already imposing starting rotation by adding John Lackey and Papelbon has said he will use his late-inning blow-up in the American League series against the Angels as extra motivation this season.

But the Red Sox haven’t replaced Jason Bay’s bat in the lineup so they won’t score as much and that means they will be in more close games.

So they will need their middle relievers/setup men to be solid.

They were stellar in the first half last season but struggled miserably in the second half.

Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima and Ramon Ramirez are back but each of them became an adventure in the second half.

If Bard continues his development, it will take the pressure off the other relievers and maybe one or two of them will put together a consistent season to complement Bard.

They have added Scott Achison, Boof Bonser and Ramon A. Ramirez which could be important since it adds to the pool of available arms out of the bullpen.

Larry Mahoney

Status quo for Pats on signing free agents

Before the “In Bill We Trust” T-shirts and free agency/draft strategy debates come out, the New England Patriots’ blueprint for a return to NFL roost rule may need a revision.

The current stalemate between the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association is expected to lead to an uncapped 2010 season, starting with the upcoming free agency signing period.

Without a salary cap, free-wheeling teams like Washington and financially well-heeled franchises like Dallas may go for broke once the free agency starting gun goes off.

The Redskins have already shown a propensity for spending like lottery winners already, so with no salary cap, it’s a certainty they’ll use up even more ink in owner Daniel Snyder’s checkbook. Dallas has both the money and status as one of the NFL’s top teams — visibility and success-wise — to attract the top talent among the 235 unrestricted free agents.

The question is how much of a player will New England be? The Patriots certainly have the pedigree, the facilities, the ownership stability, coaching staff and money to snag coveted players. They’ve shown a willingness to stretch the purse strings for guys like Adalius Thomas and Randy Moss either through free agency or trades in capped years, but have always tried to be money smart.

The guess here is that the Patriots will continue to emphasize getting more bang for their bucks by signing underpriced guys and gambling on under-producing or underrated players on the cheap with the hope they bring a big return on a minor investment. However, they will also spend big in areas of greatest need — but only on blue-chip, reliable talent.

If that’s the case, it’s easy to see the Pats making a big splash by signing a guy like Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers. They could then try to mine more gems, either by inking some guys on the downside of their career with the hope they still have something in the tank (Dre Bly, Leonard Little or even LaDainian Tomlinson). Or getting under-the-radar types like wide receiver Chris Chambers or linebacker Scott Fujita, or busts like Jets linebacker Vernon Gholston, who could be dumped along with his higher-than-deserved salary, or Antonio Bryant, who has been injury-plagued.

Andrew Neff