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On the possibility of using openers

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It’s one of Chaim Bloom’s legacies in Tampa Bay

2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

After the Winter Meetings closed up shop on Thursday, the Red Sox stayed busy. Later in the night the news broke that they had agreed to terms with left-handed pitcher Martín Pérez. Boston had gigantic hole at the back of their rotation thanks to the departure of Rick Porcello, and while I’m not much of a Pérez fan he is certainly better than what they had in place before the signing.

Even with Pérez on hand, though, there are still questions about how this team is going to get through the season with their rotation depth. For one thing, it sure looks like David Price is going to be in another uniform by the time the season starts. That would, of course, open another rotation spot. On top of that, neither Chris Sale nor Nathan Eovaldi is any sort of sure thing to stay healthy all year and the depth on the roster is not ideal. Now, the money saved from any sort of Price deal would presumably, in part, go towards adding to the rotation depth. They also need a backup catcher, potentially an outfielder in the event of a Jackie Bradley Jr. trade, perhaps a left-handed first baseman and maybe a reliever. That’s a lot to do with a relatively small amount of money.

All of this is to say, it’s hard to imagine the team is going to have enviable rotation depth coming into the year. They are going to have to get creative to make things work, which is part of the reason Chaim Bloom was hired. When the new Chief Baseball Officer (we don’t talk enough about how dumb that title is) was hired, one of the examples many presented regarding his creativity was that Bloom was one of the voices that implemented the opener strategy in Tampa Bay.

For those who somehow don’t know about this (extremely Jay Leno voice), it is when a reliever starts the game by facing three or four or five batters then handing it off to a starter-type to (hopefully) get the game into the sixth or seventh inning after that. It allows a lower-level starting pitcher to get that deep into the game while still only facing the top of the order twice. As an aside, because this is a major pet peeve of mine that I recognize is more nit-picky than I usually care to admit, the first pitcher used in a bullpen game is not an opener. Media members and even Alex Cora made that mistake many times last year and, folks, it made me mad on line.

Anyway, given Bloom’s history and the Red Sox’ lack of rotation depth, there has been speculation ramping up that Boston will indeed use the opener this season. It should be noted that Tampa actually moved away from the strategy a bit last year, but that’s because their rotation was better. It shouldn’t be a goal for teams to use openers regularly, but if you need to it is far from the worst idea.

That is not to say it is definitely a good move for the Red Sox. One of the more underrated factors here is that you need good bullpen depth to make this work, particularly if you are using it regularly. You want to have a good reliever opening these games — Serigo Romo was the first regular opener for Tampa Bay — but you also want to have a few arms ready for late-game situations.

An optimistic but not totally unrealistic view of the Red Sox bullpen would indicate they do have enough depth, but there are two issues here. For one, the optimistic but not totally unrealistic view is not foolproof. I’m relatively high on each of the top four arms in this ‘pen (Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor) but there is reason to be lower than consensus on each. If even one of them falters in a major way, this bullpen — which was better than it got credit for in 2019 — gets significantly worse.

The other issue is that, against most American League teams, you want a righty opening these games. Assuming you want to keep Workman and Barnes for the end of games, which is at least how I’d play it, that leaves you with guys like Marcus Walden, Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree and Colten Brewer starting off games, at least with how the roster stands now. Any of them (except Brewer, maybe) can certainly be effective on any given day, but if this is a strategy ever five days true talent wins out. I’m not sure the true talent for any of those guys is good enough.

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

On the other hand, they could still add another good right-handed arm. That would put that new arm or Barnes in a position to open at times. They could also be higher on any of the names above than I am, and believe it or not I have been known to be wrong from time to time! There is merit to this idea, mostly given that they aren’t going to spend on pitching and don’t really have the prospects to trade for good starters. That leaves the options of buying low on ineffective starters who you think you can “fix” (i.e. Pérez) or this opener strategy. By definition you are going to be using less-than-effective pitchers, and using an opener makes things easier on them.

So, we talked about who would open games, but the “follower” (the pitcher who comes in for the four or five innings after the opener) is the real important piece. Who would fit here? Well, most everyone. Pérez himself would be a good candidate against teams who start their lineup with three or four good righties. Avoiding that chunk of a lineup once per start could have big effects on his numbers. You also have a guy like Nathan Eovaldi, who could potentially benefit just by virtue of throwing fewer innings. Then, basically all of their depth options — Hector Velázquez, Ryan Weber, Kyle Hart, Mike Shawaryn, Brian Johnson — would benefit here. Tanner Houck might be my favorite here — especially if they don’t need late-inning help later in the year — as he could be at his best as a three- or four-inning arm.

In an ideal world, the Red Sox would have the rotation depth at the back-end and beyond where they could just use regular starters and keep their relievers in their normal roles. That is not the case here, though, and it looks unlikely to change. Given those facts, I would expect to see plenty of openers this year. I certainly don’t think it will be as often as the 2018 Rays and I don’t think they’ll devote a rotation spot to this strategy every five days, but when it makes sense — like when Pérez faces those righty-heavy lineups or when the depth needs to make spot starts — it could be a way to minimize the effects of their flawed starting pitching.