We are now just over 24 hours from Opening Day, which is amazing but also it’s about damn time. We all have our opinions of how the season will unfold by now, and we’ve moved on from objective projection than subjective freaking out, whether that be positively or negatively. By this point, we’ve covered and discussed all of the players who will be around to start the year extensively, and there’s really nothing more to say about most of them until we see them in action in games that count. There are two surprises on Boston’s Opening Day roster, though, in Bobby Poyner and Marcus Walden. The former is a relatively known commodity at this point, since most of us figured he’d be up at some point this year, even if some of us (read: me) didn’t think it would be quite this soon. Walden came out of nowhere, though, and we haven’t really talked about him at all this spring. (Again, I recognize that this is mostly on me. Whatever.) Better late than never, though, so let’s get a little Marcus Walden knowledge on a Wednesday morning.
Walden is about to enter his age-29 season, and whenever he gets in his first game that will be his major-league debut. Despite not having played at the highest level, the righty has been a professional for 11 years, having been drafted by the Blue Jays way back in 2007 out of Fresno City College. He hit a tough spot early on in his career when he missed most of 2009 and all of 2010 due to a rash of arm injuries that included a Tommy John surgery. He’d make his way back and actually get promoted to Toronto’s major-league roster in 2014, but he was optioned and eventually designated for assignment before he was able to appear in a game. From there, things got rough. He went to Oakland, then to Cincinnati, then shifted to the Indy Leagues for the 2015 season. It was at this point, as he told Masslive’s Christopher Smith for this story, that he almost quit the game altogether. He didn’t and he’d get another chance in affiliated ball in 2016, pitching in the Twins system.
It was at this point that the Red Sox gave him a shot, signing him to a minor-league deal for the 2017 season. His role, of course, was not supposed to be a very big one, but he was quietly a valuable player for the organization. The minor leagues are obviously about development for the most part, and teams don’t want to have to stretch their players too far beyond their comfort level. Unfortunately, baseball can be weird and they need a couple of versatile players who can fill holes when they arise. That’s exactly what Walden did in 2017, pitching out of the bullpen and the rotation, basically just doing exactly what was asked. It’s the kind of organizational player that never gets enough credit during a season. Except, he didn’t just fill that role admirably. Walden flat-out dealt. In 29 appearances, 15 of which were starts, he threw 105 2⁄3 innings with a 3.92 ERA, a 3.33 FIP and a 3.03 DRA. He only continued to impress this spring, too, breaking camp with a 0.64 ERA in 14 innings with 16 strikeouts and four walks.
The scouting reports, unsurprisingly, aren’t all that impressive for the right hander, but he’s shown that his skill set can get the job done. Walden doesn’t throw particularly hard, sitting in the high 80s or low 90s, but his fastball has some sink that leads to big ground ball rates. In the minors, he regularly posted ground ball rates between 55 and 65 percent, which in turn led to low home run rates. Walden also throws a changeup that Sox Prospects calls “decent,” which likely played a big role in him holding left-handed opponents to a .607 OPS in Triple-A last season.
So, we have a guy who has bounced around the league — and even into unaffiliated leagues — before putting up a dominant and versatile season for the PawSox last year. What do we expect? Honestly, I don’t have an answer to that question, and I’m not even sure how long he’ll be on the major-league roster. My assumption has been that, with Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez forced in to the rotation to start the year, the Red Sox wanted some early-season insurance in the form of a long reliever to prevent some of their other bullpen arms from potentially wearing themselves out early if one of those two depth starters gets knocked out after an inning or two. If/when the rotation returns to form, Walden could very well be the one to go in favor of someone like Brandon Workman.
Of course, the baseball world and most of us have been betting against Walden for his entire career, and he’s gone out and proven us wrong. Hell, just last week on our podcast I was asked about Walden and dismissed him outright. That was obviously incorrect, and Walden seemingly has a way of pushing beyond what anyone expects from him. I hope he plays a big role on this team all year and proves his 2017 performance was an indicator of his talent rather than a fluke. He’s an incredible story and has gone through a ton to get to this point. Even if he doesn’t, though, he’s done far more than what anyone expected, and it’s the kind of story to take a minute to appreciate before thinking about what comes next.