The 'opener' strategy is spreading, and that's probably not a good sign for free-agent starters
The Rays' latest strategic wrinkle appears to be gaining popularity
Last season, the Tampa Bay Rays introduced the "opener" strategy to regular-season baseball. Originally dreamed up by Bryan Grosnick, the opener works by rearranging how pitchers are deployed: a middle reliever starts (or "opens") the game, with the usual starter slotting in thereafter. Ideally, it allows for a platoon advantage early on and prevents weaker starting pitchers from being overexposed by facing the opponent's best hitters too many times.
It makes sense on paper. There's probably some marginal value to be gleaned there, depending on the team's personnel, their buy-in and their deployment. But there's also an ugly side to the whole thing: the idea that the Rays were implementing the opener as a means to avoid paying for traditional starting pitchers and/or suppressing the wages of their pitching prospects.
Whether or not that was the intention, it seemed certain that the opener would eventually have some impact on starters' salaries. The only surprise is that "eventually" might have already arrived. A handful of teams have been asked about implementing the opener during the Winter Meetings and replied either affirmatively or with a nod toward considering it in due time. To wit:
For those keeping score, that's a sixth of the league considering a radical shift in approach. Sure, not all of them were going to be high rollers this winter, and a few are still rumored to be interested in starting pitchers -- the Rays have been linked to Charlie Morton, for instance -- but you can see how this could result in another frosty offseason for certain mid-rotation arms, if not this winter, then in a year or two when half the league or more is co-opting the opener.
Obviously you can argue this is the natural evolution of baseball; that it's not too different from platooning hitters or using defensive subs; that the pitchers who are shunned for openers are those who are too flawed in some regard or another and so on. But the reality is that we don't even have a great way of judging how effective the opener was for the Rays. Just looking at the combined raw totals wouldn't seem to do the trick. (Though, for those wondering, the openers combined for a 3.91 ERA in starts -- equal to or worse than the marks posted by "bulk pitchers" such as Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos.)
Maybe teams have done the math to a greater extent -- comparing how the Rays' pitchers performed versus a simulation of how they would've performed if used traditionally, or something along those lines -- yet there are sample size caveats to consider. Besides, it doesn't help that many of the teams rushing to embrace the opener are among the game's stingiest -- the Rays, Athletics and Pirates rank in the bottom five in tax dollars, per Cot's Contracts. Desperation might breed innovation, but no one ever said what the desperation concerned.
We'll see how the winter plays out. Just don't be surprised if the opener becomes more of a talking point for reasons that have more to do with dollars than wins.
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