Everyone knows that the biggest story for the Red Sox right now, at least in terms of strict 2020 roster-building perspective, is what will happen at the back of the rotation. There are plenty of questions health and performance-wise at the top, but if everyone is healthy we at least know the bodies that will occupy those spots. The team literally does not have a fifth starter right now, instead going with a massive battle royale of waiver castoffs (both their own and new pickups) to fight for that top spot. We’re talking about guys like Ryan Weber, Hector Velázquez, Brian Johnson, Matt Hall, Chris Mazza, as well as some others. It’s not what you want.
Understandably, this is something that everyone who writes and talks about the Red Sox has written and talked about over the last week or two, because we are starved for content and this is a legitimate spring training battle. Ron Roenicke has chimed in many times as well, largely because the aforementioned writers and talkers have asked him about it. Everybody is generally talking about the same options, but there is one option that is being brought up time and time again and honestly, it is making me lose my mind. To be fair, that last part is a me problem more than anything, but still.
Anyway, I’m talking about the option of using an opener, which was mentioned as an option in this article from Chad Jennings handicapping the options and this article from Rob Bradford with Roenicke explaining the situation. To be entirely clear, this is not me writing an article against the idea of an opener. I actually think using an opener is a good idea for this club given the currently roster construction and generally disagree with a lot of the hand-wringing around the growing popularity of the strategy around the league. In fact, I don’t think it would be the worst idea to use an opener ahead of guys like Nathan Eovaldi and Martín Pérez, at least at times, depending on the handedness and skill of the top of the opposing lineup.
That last point actually brings me to the issue here: Using an opener isn’t an answer to the fifth starter question! Well, I mean technically it is because Roenicke will fill in Darwinzon Hernandez and Marcus Walden or whoever else serves as an opener as the starter for the game. But an opener is just a way to delay a would-be starter’s outing by three or four outs. The general idea is to avoid the top of a lineup for one turn through the order. You still, however, need a pitcher to come in for the second (sometimes third, but usually second) and hopefully be able to go at least four and preferably five or even six innings.
The Rays obviously popularized the the usage of openers in the majors, and guys like Sergio Romo and later Ryne Stanek became semi-famous because they were the eponymous opener. The real key to those games, or at least the guys who got most of the innings, were guys like Ryan Yarbrough, Yonny Chirinos and Jalen Beeks, pitchers who had starter skills but also enough flaws that the Rays wanted to limit their exposure. Again, it is a good strategy with the right roster, but it doesn’t work without the followers.
So, as we get back to the Red Sox, they’d still need to determine who’d they want to use as a follower if they do indeed want to go with an opener. Hernandez or Walden aren’t really options unless they are actually getting stretched out to become real starters, in which case they aren’t openers. Or, on the flip side, if they’re just the first reliever in a string of one- or two-inning pitchers, they also aren’t openers. In that case they are just the first pitcher in a bullpen game, which is simply not sustainable over a full season unless you are getting big-time innings from your other four starters. I’ll let you look at the rest of the rotation and determine the likelihood there. Granted, they could use bullpen games early in the year, but eventually they need to answer this fifth starter question.
Anyway, this was basically just a way for me to air out one of my biggest pet peeves in baseball today and one that has seemingly spread to major-league managers. The Red Sox probably should use openers, because the options at the back of their rotation are undeniably flawed. Using an opener will at least somewhat limit their exposure to opponents’ best hitters. Even then, though, they are going to need to somebody to pitch a couple times through an order every five days, even if they aren’t technically a starter. Using an opener for the fifth starter begins to answer that big question looming over the roster, but there is still a lot more context needed until it is a satisfying answer. Put another way, this position battle still exists even if they opt for the opener strategy.