Mike Nicastro is the author of this article.
With Tuesday’s trade of Ivan Nova to the Chicago White Sox, the Pirates have four clear-cut rotation pieces in place in Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove – assuming that all will be healthy when the first bit of chalk lines the field in 2019.
Conventional baseball wisdom says that is one short of a standard rotation. But what if it wasn’t?
According to Neal Huntington and The Athletic Pirates beat writer Rob Biertempel, the Pirates could entertain the idea of having strictly bullpen pieces comprise their fifth and final piece in the rotation. An “opener” if you will.
First, you may be wondering what the heck an opener is. Good on you, baseball, with your swanky new terminology for millennials. Unfortunately, it will not be a musical or comedy performance preceding a baseball game.
If you guessed the opposite of a closer, you’d be right. Using bullpen pitchers to start the game and ideally pitch a few innings before having a revolving door of ‘pen arms finish the contest is the closest I could give you to a Webster’s definition. A true deviation of baseball tradition.
The Rays went full steam ahead with this concept last year, as Kevin Cash’s squad went 44-34 in “opener” games. They also plan to utilize the same blueprint this year.
The question begs: what could this look like for the Pirates?
A key to this recipe is starting the game with one of your better relievers due to the fact that you are obviously going to see the team’s best hitters towards the top of the lineup. Starting a game with a back-end long relief pitcher is a derelict of duty because you would be playing catch-up from jump-street. The notion that you could start Steven Brault, or recently signed journey-man Jordan Lyles (oh yeah, that happened too by the way), is not one that holds any particular merit.
The Rays frequently opened the game last year with high-leverage players who threw gas, with flame-thrower Ryne Stanek at the forefront starting 29 games last season (and topping out once at 103 mph.) A player of Stanek’s caliber is the perfect choice to get hitters out of a rhythm early and allows a manager to complement him in the following innings with a pitcher who blends speed and pitches.
Ideally, for the Pirates this would mean someone like Keone Kela or Kyle Crick starting the game, and then you could follow with Steven Brault or Nick Kingham based on matchups. Adding another significant bullpen piece like Adam Ottavino or Kelvin Herrera would allow the Pirates to still have a reliable back-end of the pen to preserve a lead, should they get one in the early-going of an opener game.
Ultimately, if you think you can have a bullpen game, the faith lies in the starting rotation. If they’re unable to provide significant innings this idea is bound to fail and you’ll just be taxing your middle relievers.
Is it feasible? I think so.
But signing another stud relief-pitcher and ensuring your four horses are healthy and capable of pitching deep into games are absolutely vital to this rotation being “opened” for business.