“It’s only awesome if it works.”
That was Kevin Cash’s response to the league-wide smirk at Sergio Romo manning third base earlier this season. Romo had started the inning, but Cash wanted Jonny Venters to face the next batter before returning to the reliever. The solution was simple, and when Venters was removed after one batter, Romo went back to the mound without needing to flinch while in the field, and a position player resumed third base’s defense.
Cash’s phrase applies to more than a one-off strategy.
The Rays Rebuild, or whatever you want to call this season, has become palatable to some. After much vitriol from outside Rays circles and, in some cases, from this writer, the Rays have been vindicated with the vast majority of their offseason moves of veteran players through those players’ average or mediocre performance elsewhere. The exception remains Corey Dickerson, who fundamentally changed his approach on offense to remain a productive player, something the front office would likely admit they did not think he could achieve.
Then again, as of publication date, Dickerson is batting .250/.266/.283 with a .239 wOBA and 46 wRC+ in August. The Pirates fancied themselves contenders and acquired Chris Archer at the trade deadline, skipping their expected rebuild, but are seeing role players fall apart, not unlike the 2017 Rays who were unable to get the job done in September on the backs of veterans who did not deliver and are now gone.
For the Pirates, too, it’s only awesome if it works.
Then there’s what the Rays are doing with their pitching during the rebuild. After the loss of the team’s top three pitching prospects to Tommy John surgery, the Rays turned to a collection of pitchers that did not have eye-popping Future Value grades on the 20-80 scale. In fact, given good health, it’s likely those pitchers (Ryan Yarbrough, Yonny Chirinos) would have spent significant time in Triple-A Durham.
Instead the Rays had to play the cards they were dealt.
It’s not a long-term strategy to roll with 45-grade Future Value pitchers as your starting rotation, but it works as a stop gap as you test them against major league hitters. And it was an open question as to how you accomplish that with rookies:
“You want to get as much quantity of quality as you can,” Rays GM Erik Neander recently told the New York Post. “Chris Archer is never going to be a three- or four-inning guy. If you can get seven from every turn out of him, you take it. But before you get seven, see if you can get three to five. And if you can do that, then you graduate. It’s right for this group. They bought in. Our staff has done a great job.”
In a world where even veteran starter Nathan Eovaldi wasn’t ready to start the year, none of the suddenly-promoted arms were going to be able to go several innings, so the Rays needed to innovate quickly.
Through the use of The Opener, the Rays have been able to protect arms from the best hitters in a lineup from the first time through, and then subvert what those hitters have already seen by giving them a completely different look once the traditional starter arrives in the game. The perceived drop off from the likes of righty flamethrowers Ryne Stanek and Hunter Wood to lefty longmen Ryan Yarbrough and newly acquired Jalen Beeks is severe in a way that plays to the team’s and the starter’s advantage. In fact all four players have flourished in these non-standard roles.
One of the larger and louder arguments against the Opener strategy has been based around money and it should not be avoided, so let’s turn to a case-in-point mentioned above.
Ryan Yarbrough, who led the Rays to a 1-0 shut out on Monday, might have simply been a reliever on a conventional Rays team, but has instead been featured in 4.0+ innings on 18 of his 31 outings, going as many as seven innings, and now trails only Blake Snell in innings pitched for the Rays.
In all likelihood, Ryan Yarbrough has had more success in his tailored role than he might have seen as a pure stater (being exposed to a standard opening) or as a pure reliever (call it the Matt Andriese treatment), and therefore should be in line for a higher salary in arbitration. Success pays, even if the numbers are achieved unconventionally. It’s awesome for Yarbrough, but only because it works.
Given its success, we’ve now seen the Opener utilized and/or considered across baseball, particularly through its implementation in the Twins minor league system, but more famously through guest appearances with the big market teams like the Dodgers.
It works, and that makes it awesome whether it plays into a preferred narrative or not.
Finally, the Rays have continued the rebuild by going after new talent, dealing Chris Archer (as mentioned above) for rookie pitcher Tyler Glasnow, who the Rays are stretching into a traditional starter’s role without an opener, and likely left fielder of the future Austin Meadows, who is getting everyday reps in Triple-A.
The Rays also turned multiple prospects on the fringe of the team roster into a starter by swapping players who might have been caught in the 40-man roster crunch next season for Tommy Pham, a plus hitter capable of manning center field with ease. And all the while, the Rays have been integrating promising prospects like Willy Adames, Jake Bauers, and Diego Castillo into the roster spots cleared by the mired off-season moves.
And that calculus doesn’t account for the several prospects the Rays have picked up in those deals (such as 2017 first round pick Shane Baz) who add to the Rays No. 2 ranked farm system. The Rays are gearing up for 2019 and beyond at the same time while maintaining a record above .500 — a far cry from the 100 losses many predicted to start the season.
Tampa Bay’s plan could be awesome, but only if, well, you know.