[Ed Note: We welcome Mackenzie Longpre to Blue Jays from Away and here’s his first article for us, concerning The Opener!]
The Winter Meetings are freshly wrapped up and as expected, Blue Jays fans are probably a bit underwhelmed by the maneuverings of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins. Not dissimilar to last off-season, the Blue Jays aren’t likely to make a splash in the free-agent or trade markets this winter. However, two pitchers appear to be on offer for the right price. Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez have reportedly been asked after and it sounds like the Jays’ brass isn’t willing to part with either of them unless the return is significant. If a trade partner is found and one or both of Sanchez/Stroman departs, then Toronto looks to be in a bit of starting-pitcher-depth jeopardy. Thisis very similar to the situation Tampa Bay found itself in lastseason, and they managed to engineer a brilliant solution. Sergio Romo, a closer, started a game, and the opener was born. Tampa’s strategy has sparked an analytical revolution that has the whole baseball world rethinking pitching rotations and bullpens. The pressing question in Toronto is whether or not Charlie Montoyo will bring the opener north of the border.
Without Stroman and Sanchez, Toronto would only have five pitchers on their40-man roster with starting experience for the club. This list includes promising prospects Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley, and Thomas Pannone, as well as less-than-inspiring options in Joe Biagini and Sam Gaviglio. After these five, the Jays have a number of options, though only one has any major league experience. Trent Thornton, Patrick Murphy, Hector Perez, Jacob Waguespack, and Yennsy Diaz have all yet to make a major league roster. Julian Merryweather may be Major League ready, but is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and isn’t expected to see game action until later in the first half this season.
David Paulino, who has seven starts for Houston under his belt, as well as seven appearances out of Toronto’s bullpen last year, gets my bet as a guy who will be given lots of opportunities in the spring to win a spot in the rotation. After that, I imagine Trent Thornton will be given due consideration. Recent Rule-5 acquisition Elvis Luciano will only be 19 once the season starts and hasn’t pitched above Rookie League, but has to stay on the 25-man roster all season or else be offered back to Kansas City. Though he’s primarily been a starter, I expect he’ll be used out of the pen in very low leverage situations until he proves what he’s able to do in the big leagues.
Even with all of these starting options in play going into spring, should either Sanchez or Stroman be dealt (or just as probably, injured), there’s not an awful lot of experience for the Blue Jays to turn to.
Enter the opener.
Consider also that Charlie Montoyo is the new manager and his pedigree with Tampa Bay puts him firmly in the advanced analytics camp. Tampa famously made good with their revolutionary opener approach. That move was also made necessary by a short-handed staff nagged by injuries and not enough major league ready pitching prospects, particularly after Chris Archer was sent packing. Starting from the date of Sergio Romo’s first start, Tampa’s opener strategy was so successful that they led the league in team ERA with a 2.87 mark. The idea spread around the league and other teams adopted the strategy as well. The Athletics, Twins, and Rangers tried out the concept in September. Oakland used an opener in the Wild Card Game, though Liam Hendricks’ excellent opener numbers from the regular season didn’t carry over into that game. Here’s Athletic’s manager Bob Melvin speaking about the opener last season:
The opener is likely to be more than just a fad. It’s expected that several more teams will adopt the strategy, and I think the Blue Jays, particularly without Stroman and Sanchez (though I would argue even if they’re still here), are prime candidates to give this idea a try. Here are all of the relievers listed on the current 40-man roster:
Now, allow me to run a hypothetical: Marcus Stroman is traded sometime before the season for prospects who aren’t added to the 40-man, and Aaron Sanchez’s blister flares up yet again and he’s placed on the DL indefinitely. Those are two not unlikely scenarios. The season gets underway with the current 40-man roster. Here’s a thirteen man pitching staff I could see the Jays using to start the season:
The Jays could start gently with an opener strategy and use an opener as the fifth starter while relying on a four-man rotation of traditional starters. I could see SRF, Ryan Borucki, and Thomas Pannone playing the role of traditional starters, along with any mix of Biagini, Gaviglio, or Thornton filling the fourth spot in the rotation or second-out-of-the-pen spots behind an opener on the fifth day.
Ken Giles, Ryan Tepera, or David Paulino might make excellent opener candidates. Each of them can likely be relied upon to throw one or two innings every four or five days to start a game. I expect them to be back end of the bullpen options whenever they’re not potentially opening games. Each is a righty with a mid to high-90s fastball and command over one or two secondary pitches, which is the necessary closer material to throw at the top of some explosive lineups around the American League. I could see them playing well against a lot of New York’s right handed sluggers. Take away one at bat from Stanton, Judge, Sanchez, Voit, and Torres at the outset and the Jays may be able to navigate their way a little more easily to twenty-seven outs against the dread Yanks.
Effectively, that leaves Barnes, Drake, Mayza, and Luciano as more traditional relievers throwing one or two innings every few days, and Biagini, Gaviglio, and Thornton rotating through the fourth starter slot, traditional long-man relief duty, and second-out-of-pen roles.
The role of the Major League bullpen has been changing since time immemorial and I feel like it’s been talked about and scrutinized to death in the last few years. We’re witnessing a great revolution in the use of relievers. Closers opening games and closing others, starters only being asked to throw five or six innings. specialization growing exponentially in the seventh and eighth innings. Some teams carry three or four closers to effectively shorten games, others carry a more amorphous bullpen corps, asking their relievers to adapt to different and ever-changing workloads. Maybe the Jays don’t need to have the best bullpen arms in the game, they just need to effectively manage the workloads of those on the roster. Ask some arms with starting experience to pitch fewer innings more often, let the young starters know they’re only asked to go five or six innings each time out, and carry only one or two pitchers who throw only one or two innings per outing. Maybe those pitchers close a game, and maybe they open others.
Amidst all the theorizing and strategizing about the newest development in the ongoing bullpen revolution looms perhaps the most pressing question: where do openers sit when they’re not pitching? In the dugout or the bullpen? Can someone ask Charlie Montoyo what Sergio Romo did last season?
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