Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Bobby Poyner.
The Question: What does Bobby Poyner have to do to be a real part of this bullpen conversation?
As we may have mentioned here once or twice this winter, the Red Sox bullpen has dominated the conversation of the winter. Said conversation has taken a lot of different forms and covered a lot of different players. Should they sign Craig Kimbrel or Adam Ottavino? What about Sergio Romo or Adam Warren? Are Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier good enough to anchor a bullpen for a team with eyes for a championship? Can any of Tyler Thornburg, Heath Hembree or Brandon Workman step up? When are we going to see Durbin Feltman, Darwinzon Hernandez and/or Travis Lakins, and what can they bring to the table? Is Steven Wright going to be able to dominate in the bullpen? Can Brian Bannister unlock anything with Colten Brewer? There have been so many questions about who can contribute what out of the Red Sox bullpen, and yet there’s been little mention of Bobby Poyner. We should probably talk about Bobby Poyner more.
Last year around this time, pretty much nobody would have imagined us talking about Poyner much at all, never mind clamoring to talk about him more. He was slightly on the radar as a potential sleeper, but those guys are a dime a dozen in the spring and they never work out. Of course, Poyner was stellar over the entire spring and with an open spot in Boston’s bullpen he had a real chance of making the roster. He ended up making it, setting a tone for the team that reinforced if you perform, you will play. The southpaw was solid at the start of the year, too, pitching to a 2.57 ERA over his first seven appearances with more than a strikeout per inning and only one walk. Unfortunately, his last outing was 37 pitchers, which was going to put him out of commission for a few days. Since he had minor-league options and the Red Sox needed a fresh arm, Poyner was sacrificed to the majors.
Once he was optioned, he never really got a chance back at the major-league level. Granted, he had a couple of short stints in the majors before September, but none lasting more than two outings before being sent back down. Poyner came up for a one-appearance stint in early June, was sent back down, and that was the last we saw of him until rosters expanded. Obviously, the Red Sox didn’t suffer without Poyner, but it wasn’t that he hadn’t earned a longer-term shot in the majors. He struck out more than a batter per inning over 22 1⁄3 major-league innings with fewer than two walks per nine innings. His strikeout rate wasn’t quite as high in 43 Triple-A innings, but his control was still outstanding and pitched to a 3.14 ERA. In other words, he was good enough to get a chance in many organizations. He just happened to play in one that didn’t have room for him.
Entering 2019, it seems he is in a similar situation to start the season. There is a chance there is an open bullpen spot at the end of spring, but right now it doesn’t seem like Poyner has a great chance of getting it. Once again, Boston’s bullpen is filled with pitchers lacking minor-league options, meaning those with one like Poyner are naturally left on the outside looking in. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t the biggest deal. He doesn’t have the huge upside that attracts conversation, which is why he doesn’t get mentioned much among potential helpers for a bullpen that many think will be shaky in the coming year. That, however, is why we should probably be talking about him more. The bullpen needs a little stability, and while nothing is sure, Poyner has something of a stable profile.
Although the lefty struck out over a batter per inning in the majors last year, stuff isn’t really the calling card for Poyner. To be fair, he did carry strong strikeout rates for much of his minor-league career, but he’s probably more of an average strikeout arm in terms of true-talent. However, he’s also a guy with strong command and deception that can make his pitches tough to pick up. It allows him to strike out more batters than his stuff would suggest, and it also allows him to get batters to chase bad pitches and keep his walk rate down. He’s also not someone who needs to be limited to left-handed opponents, and in fact has been better against righties than lefties for the bulk of his career. In a league where versatility is valued more and more, having a southpaw who can be used in any situation is no small feat.
Ultimately, we know why Poyner isn’t discussed as pretty much any other breathing reliever on the 40-man or among the organization’s top prospects: Upside. There’s very little chance Poyner is going to pitch his way into a setup or closer role in the next couple of years. Still, if you’re going to compete you need more than late-inning arms, and Poyner can be really valuable as a stable middle relief option. In the scenario where one of Thornburg, Hembree or Workman either struggles or gets hurt, Poyner should be among the top candidates to replace them. Hopefully, if he gets that chance, he’ll be given the opportunity to find his footing long-term in the majors, because he can provide the kind of quiet value that often goes under-appreciated.