Starting pitchers used to be expected to throw complete games. Then they were expected to pitch as deep into games as they could before turning it over to the bullpen if they were tired or became ineffective. Then they were expected to “keep the team in the game” for five or six innings while eyeing a $200-million contract.
For the Tampa Bay Rays, on some days this year, the starter is expected to go one inning. Maybe two.
Friday against the Yankees was one such day. The starter was righthander Ryne Stanek. He went one shutout inning and was replaced by lefthander Ryan Yarbrough, who threw 3 1⁄3 scoreless innings to earn the win in the Rays’ 2-1 victory at Tropicana Field.
The Rays, who are sort of a pointless franchise with few fans in an out-of-date ballpark on the wrong side of Tampa’s bay, are trying something new. It’s called “the opener,” and it is playing to mixed reviews.
“I can be completely candid and honest,’’ manager Kevin Cash told the Tampa Bay Times on June 6. “When it works, it feels pretty good when it’s happening. But when it doesn’t, it’s pretty gut-wrenching.”
The Rays, who are 36-40 after Saturday’s 4-0 win over the Yankees (a four-hitter with starter Wilmer Font going 5 2⁄3 innings), have used an opener 15 times this season. They are 6-9 in those games.
The Rays are going with three or four regular starters and one or two openers per turn in the rotation. Cash selects an opener and then has an opposite-armed pitcher ready to take over, usually in the second inning. That pitcher is expected to give the Rays up to seven innings before the late-inning relievers take over — although sometimes the late-inning reliever one day is the opener from the day before.
Stanek has opened seven games and finished six out of the bullpen. (He pitched 1 1⁄3 innings of middle relief Saturday.) Sergio Romo has opened five — his first five starts in an 11-year career — and finished 11, including Saturday.
Romo opened back-to-back games against the Angels on May 19 and 20. But since the Rays traded closer Alex Colome to the Mariners, Romo is their new closer and probably is out of the opener rotation.
Lefthander Jonny Venters made the first start of his career June 6 at Washington. Of the six batters he faced, five came around to score in an 11-2 loss.
Venters, who returned to the majors this season after last pitching in 2012 because of three Tommy John surgeries, probably is just happy to be healthy and grateful to have a job. Stanek, 26, is a hard thrower in his second big-league season. Romo has been bouncing around the last two seasons after winning three World Series rings as a key member of the Giants’ bullpen.
In other words, the Rays aren’t trying this experiment with pitchers who have long-term contracts. With the exception of Romo, none is an established veteran. The phrase “cannon fodder” comes to mind.
Players on other teams already have wondered out loud if the small-market Rays are doing this in part to keep pitchers’ salaries down. If you’re a reliever who is being used as an opener, you can’t qualify for a win or a save. Only a loss.
And given that starters make more than relievers, having a roster with only three or four bona fide starting pitchers is cheaper than a full veteran rotation.
Expensive players aren’t exactly flocking to sign with Tampa Bay anyway, but what if several teams start using an opener? What free-agent reliever would want to sign with a team knowing he could be used anywhere from the first to the ninth inning, with a limited opportunity to compile positive stats for his next contract?
“Obviously, with the Rays, they’re trying different things,” Yankees reliever Dellin Betances said. “I don’t know how good it’s working for them. More power to the bullpen, I guess. It’s kind of a weird situation. I’m not a fan of it. I wouldn’t want to go out there and start a game. I think I already blew that chance I had when I was younger.”
Betances actually might have been the first opener without anyone even realizing it. On the final day of the 2011 season, he started for the Yankees at Tampa Bay and went two scoreless innings in his second big-league appearance. He hasn’t started another big-league game since and doesn’t want to.
“I’d rather come in later in a game,” Betances said. “More energy, more adrenaline. I’m a guy that feeds off adrenaline.”
Yankees lefthander Chasen Shreve — whose only professional starts have come in minor-league injury rehab games — said of being an opener: “I would have to do it to see if I like it. The only way I would like it, I think, is if I get a start in the stat column. Can you take that to arbitration and say, ‘I’m a starter?’ Well, then, yeah, I guess.”
The good news for Betances and Shreve is that the Yankees aren’t interested in copying the Rays. When Jordan Montgomery and Masahiro Tanaka were injured, the Yankees didn’t ask one of their relievers to pitch an inning as an opener. They simply promoted starters Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga from the minors.
Said Shreve, “I’m glad we don’t have to think about it.”