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Aaron Cook looking to give Red Sox ‘a hard decision’

03.22.12 at 9:21 pm ET
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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Aaron Cook had major league offers this offseason. He declined them in order to sign a minor league deal with the Red Sox. He did so with the intention of embracing the challenge of forcing his way into the rotation by proving he was healthy and delivering a strong performance.

“I signed the minor league deal here. I knew what the situation was. I knew they had a couple spots they were trying to fill. And I felt like it was a great opportunity for me to come and prove myself,” said Cook. “I want to go out there, prove that I’€™m healthy, throw strikes, take us deep into games, make it be a hard decision for them to make.”

So far, so good. On Thursday, Cook once again showed a sharp sinker along with a curveball that he was able to pound down in the strike zone. He needed just 48 pitches (31 strikes) to fly through four innings of work in which he allowed two runs on four hits (only one of which was truly ripped, a run-scoring Curtis Granderson triple) while issuing no walks and striking out two. He used his trademark sinker to get six groundball outs.

Cook was held behind the other competitors for the Sox rotation at the start of camp as the Sox, mindful of the fact that he’d endured shoulder issues in the last two seasons, wanted him to take more time to build up.

Initially, that offered a source of some frustration for Cook. But as he has now gotten three starts into his spring slate, he’s seen value to the approach in his three starts, during which Cook has allowed two runs in 9 1/3 innings (1.93 ERA) with four strikeouts and three walks.

“I feel great. Looking back, it’€™s definitely the smartest thing we could have done,” Cook said of the delay of his unveiling, with his first start coming on March 11. “It was a little aggravating at the time because you were coming into a new camp, new organization, and you want to get out there and show them what you can do. But in the long run, I think it’€™s really going to pay off. My shoulder’€™s felt great. I’€™ve had my legs underneath me all spring, and that’€™s really paying off with the action on my fastball moving down.”

Indeed, Cook has shown a nasty, late-breaking sinker that dives down and allows him to work opposing hitters for quick outs (hence the average of 12 pitches an inning).

Cook has thrust himself into consideration for a potential starting job with the Sox in April. While he signed a minor league deal, it has an opt-out for May 1 if he is not added to the big league roster by then.

Still, he is behind the other competitors for a starting spot at the start of the year, as Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves and Felix Doubront have all gotten nearly twice the workload of Cook, who has logged 9 1/3 innings. That said, the 10-year veteran is closing on his colleagues, and he believes that there is enough time for him to open the year in the Sox rotation.

“I think I can. We still have, what, about two weeks or so, a couple starts,” said Cook. “There’€™s still a lot of baseball. Anything can happen. I’€™m just going to keep going out there when they give me the ball, and hopefully I’€™m ready to go.”

(It is worth noting that, given his minor league deal, he could make two more spring training starts, make another start for Triple-A Pawtucket at the start of its season, then be on schedule for a start by the time the big league Sox need a fifth starter for the first time on April 11.)

While it remains to be seen whether Cook can build the arm strength to work as many as roughly seven innings and 85-90 pitches in a start (his desired targets for the spring), there is no question that he will be ready for the start of the season in at least one respect. Cook showed a remarkably quick pickoff move in nabbing a couple of Yankees who had reached first base, evidence that the sinkerballing Cook — whose pitch-to-contact approach results in a high volume of baserunners and a reliance on the double play grounder — takes seriously the task of holding runners at first.

“Playing in the National League for all those years, we worked really hard on controlling the running game. I took a lot of pride in being able to do some of that on my own, take some of the pressure off the bench coach,” said Cook. “I look for opportunities to use my quick move when I can, my slide step, try to give me the best chance of getting a double play.

“I worked really hard when I had [Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure] in the minor leagues with Colorado. We worked really extensively on pickoff moves. I think all that hard work is paying off.”

So, too, is Cook’s commitment to show he is once again healthy. While it remains to be seen if he will open the year in the rotation, the mere fact that he is in discussion for a spot is a testimony to how far he’s come.

“I came in this spring to show I was healthy, could really go out there and compete and with a fresh slate, I can just go out and prove myself all over again,” said Cook.

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