Getting back into the swing of things can prove challenging for players with minor-league options, a longstanding baseball practice in which Major League Baseball teams can send a player up and down multiple times over the course of a single season without running the risk of losing him to another club.
“When you do have guys with options, there is a luxury there,” Pawtucket Red Sox manager Kevin Boles said. “It’s a good thing to have, it definitely is.”
For players like PawSox pitchers Bobby Poyner, William Cuevas, Justin Haley, and Robby Scott along with infielders Sam Travis and Tzu-Wei Lin, it’s been a season where Boston has taken full advantage of their status to be optioned without being exposed to waivers. Poyner is the leader in the clubhouse with four promotions from Pawtucket, including one as recently as July 14. Lin is next with three trips on the PawSox-to-Red Sox shuttle while Travis, Cuevas, Haley, and Scott have each been up twice to the parent club.
“It’s important to have a group of players who can support the big-league team and are ready and able to make that transition rather quickly,” said Ben Crockett, Red Sox vice president of player development. “Obviously, you don’t want to lose talented players who you view as important depth pieces. When you have guys who can help, everyone is better off.”
For this particular group of PawSox, the ability to juggle two vastly different baseball addresses hasn’t gone unnoticed. Case in point, Poyner recently could have taken his time returning to the minors and no one within the Pawtucket camp would have faulted the left-handed reliever.
This past Saturday, Poyner was optioned by Boston to make room for third baseman Rafael Devers, who was activated off the disabled list. At the time, the Red Sox were in Detroit while the PawSox were in the midst of a weekend series in Gwinnett.
“With our guys, I like what they’ve done. Nobody has taken any extended time off.”
Per Major League Baseball, players like Poyner are granted a 72-hour window before they must report to Triple-A upon getting optioned. If Poyner chose to follow the letter of the law exactly, he could have rejoined Pawtucket upon returning to McCoy Stadium for a six-game homestand that began on Tuesday night.
Instead, Poyner flew from Detroit to Lawrenceville, Ga. and told PawSox manager Kevin Boles that he needed to pitch. Staying down for an additional few days wasn’t on Poyner’s itinerary, not after having the benefit of two All-Star breaks and appearing in only three games over the first three weeks of July.
One day after getting farmed out, Poyner was activated for Pawtucket’s series finale against Gwinnett. That same day, the 25-year-old turned in 1.1 scoreless innings. Two days later, Poyner pitched a scoreless ninth inning for the save as Pawtucket defeated Columbus, 6-3.
“With our guys, I like what they’ve done. Nobody has taken any extended time off. They come right back, they’re ready to work, and they’ve got a great attitude. They’ve handled it beautifully,” Boles said. “They have a window they can take, but they want to stay sharp and that’s a credit to their character. All of them understand the importance of the game.”
Said Poyner, “Anytime you get an opportunity, you try and take advantage of it. That’s kind of what my goal is.”
Still, it can’t be easy to be yo-yoed back and forth between Triple-A and the big leagues. Routines that have become second nature are usurped or altered completely for the sake of providing adequate coverage for the parent club. Position players who are used to seeing their names on the lineup card on a daily basis, or pitchers who have a pretty good idea of when they’ll next take the mound, can find themselves subjected to infrequent usage while stationed on the big-league roster.
When Lin spent from April 10 to May 8 with the Red Sox, he received just 32 at-bats over that span. To go from an everyday player at the Triple-A level to a part-time one in the majors requires some creativity that fosters some degree of sharpness and readiness.
“The key for those guys when they’re not everyday players up there is to make sure they keep working. Don’t fall into the trap. Do extra work so you can keep up your stamina,” Boles said. “You can’t simulate nine innings, but you can make adjustments with your workouts.”
Added Crockett, “It’s certainly a different thing but the major league staff tries to help them with those things and have conversations about how to stay sharp. That’s why it’s important to stay true to a foundation that was formed before getting to Pawtucket.”
“I think the focus is on continuing to get your work in every day, whether the focus is a specific pitch or command,” Poyner said.
Obviously, players like Poyner and Lin would like to stick with the Red Sox on a permanent basis. They understand, however, that they’re in a position to not only aid Boston but also simplify what decisions the front office can make when called upon to make a roster decision.
“You have to have guys with options. Otherwise, it could affect your ballclub down the stretch,” said Poyner, who has a 1.69 ERA in 10 games with the Red Sox and (through Tuesday’s games) has posted a 2.57 ERA with three games in 22 games for Pawtucket. “Having a couple of guys that have the ability to go up and down … hopefully when we get to the big leagues we can step in and help the team win. That’s the goal and kind of our role amongst the four or five of us in (the PawSox clubhouse).”
Herein lies a group of Pawtucket players who never seem to stray too far from Boston’s radar.
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