On their way to being the biggest overachievers in the league in 2018, the trend-setting Tampa Bay Rays made frequent use of “The Opener.” The strategy allowed them to get the most out of a no-name pitching staff and was quickly adopted by other MLB teams—on a much smaller scale—as the season went on.
Now entering Spring Training, every organization must at least consider following in their footsteps. Don Mattingly left the door open to that possibility when addressing the media on Wednesday:
Mattingly on The Opener trend: "When something works, it becomes something that teams will at least consider using."— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) February 13, 2019
So, what exactly is an opener? It’s a short-term pitcher tasked with starting the game and going through the meat of the opposing lineup, allowing for a more durable arm to land softly in a more favorable matchup and rack up innings from there.
This is not applicable to legitimate aces trusted with dominating three full times through a batting order, but rather a means of helping fringy starters. Like this:
Would the Marlins consider utilizing The Opener?
At Marlins FanFest, President of Baseball Operations Michael Hill was somewhat dismissive when asked about bringing The Opener to Miami. He summarized that it is for teams that lack starting pitching, and that the Marlins are not one of those teams.
But what if the Marlins actually have the perfect opener on the roster? And no, I am not suggesting that the newly acquired Sergio Romo—who made a handful of appearances as an opener for the Rays—should continue doing it.
Take one guess who the Marlins opener could be. Too easy. Should have thought of it before today. Hint : not Romo.— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) February 13, 2019
The Marlins have a logjam in their starting rotation, as was highlighted in our prediction analysis of the Opening Day roster. When everybody’s healthy, qualified candidates would either be squeezed off the active roster...or forced into unconventional roles.
From that logjam, they may find the ultimate solution on how to balance their veteran leadership and young arms.
In Chen, the Marlins have an expensive yet volatile lefty arm. There are two splits that defined him last season: home versus road performance (1.62 ERA vs. 9.27 ERA) and first time through versus second time through the order (3.38 ERA vs. 5.03 ERA).
The veteran can no longer be relied upon to be a consistent quality starter, but the Marlins will be determined to get something out of the $42 million still owed to him. Limiting Chen’s workload as an opener would keep his tender elbow intact without denying their younger pitchers any opportunities to prove they belong as parts of the future core.
Sandy Alcántara, Pablo López, Caleb Smith, and Trevor Richards have all shown that their time in the minors is past them. Prospects such as Nick Neidert, Jordan Yamamoto, Robert Dugger, and others in the Marlins farm system are also inching toward the majors. It would be counterproductive to delay their growth for Chen’s sake.
Thursday’s announcement confirmed José Ureña’s role on the pitching staff. This could be how the rest of the 2019 rotation shakes out:
1. José Ureña
2. Chen + Pablo López
3. Dan Straily
4. Caleb Smith
5. Chen + Sandy Alcántara
Even when Richards force his way into the mix or one of the prospects gets a cup of coffee. the concept would remain the same: Chen opening for a young and developing arm.
I am still on the fence about The Opener and its effectiveness. With that being said, these are exactly the kind of experiments a rebuilding team should embrace.
What do you think?