Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash became the subject of much debate around baseball this year when he introduced his concept of using relief pitchers as, “openers” to start games. The concept was simple: send a relief pitcher out to face the opposing lineup first, then bring in a starting pitcher afterward to pitch the majority of the game. The idea is to prevent a pitcher from having to face the same hitter more than two or three times and, vice versa, preventing an opposing hitter from seeing a Rays pitcher more than three times.
The concept was borne out of the fact that the Tampa Bay Rays were lacking major depth as it pertained to starting pitching to begin the 2018 season. The Rays entered the season with just a four-man rotation consisting of Chris Archer, Nathan Eovaldi, Blake Snell, and Jake Faria.
The Rays’ pitching core became even thinner throughout the season as they continued their rebuilding process, trading away Archer, Eovaldi, Matt Andriese, Jonny Venters, and Alex Colome. As it stands right now, the Rays only have two legitimate starting pitchers on their roster in the form of All-Star Blake Snell and the recently acquired Tyler Glasnow. Thus, the opener strategy has been leaned on heavily in the second half of the season, and some promising young talent has emerged as a result.
The most frequently used “opener” for Cash this season has been 27-year-old right-hander Ryne Stanek, and he has been decidedly effective in that role. Stanek has flip-flopped between the starting rotation and the bullpen all season long, making 20 starts and 21 relief appearances this season for the Rays. He holds a 1-3 record with a 2.74 ERA this season while recording 61 strikeouts in 49.1 innings pitched. He has shown off his impressive velocity, averaging around 98-100 miles per hour on his fastball, according to FanGraphs. Stanek projects long-term as a reliever and his electric repertoire makes him a strong candidate to earn a closing job in the near future, especially since the Rays’ current closer, Sergio Romo, will be a free agent at the end of the season.
Along with Stanek, the Rays have a trio of 24-year-olds who are sure to be a major part of the team’s rebuilding efforts going forward. Yonny Chirinos, Diego Castillo, and Hunter Wood have all shown flashes of promise out of the Rays bullpen this season both as relievers and as openers for the team.
Chirinos, an international signing by the Rays, is another hard-throwing right-hander whom the Rays have showcased this season. Chirinos is known best for relying on his sinker, which can reach the 96-98 miles per hour range at times. However, his best pitch may be his split-finger fastball, with which he is holding opposing hitters to a .115 batting average and has recorded 23 of his 44 strikeouts on the season. Conversely, opposing hitters are batting .321 collectively against his favored sinker, which is something he will have to improve if he wants to establish himself as a big-league starter.
Wood, who actually turned 25 just a week ago, is another promising fireballer coming out of the Rays bullpen. His average velocity hovers around 94 miles per hour, but he can ramp it up to the 97-98 range at times, too. Wood likely projects as a reliever in the long-term as he has posted troubling numbers as a starting pitcher. He holds a lofty 4.76 ERA to go along with a 1.94 WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched) as a starter. He has found a lot of success with his curveball, registering 10 of his 31 strikeouts with that pitch and holding opposing hitters to just a .211 batting average against it. Wood certainly has the tools to be a starter, but in the meantime, he can be a formidable bullpen arm until he can find more consistency as a starter.
Last, but most certainly not least, is Castillo, who has rapidly ascended through the Rays farm system and made an immediate impact on the big-league roster. Castillo, 24, was called up to the major league roster after posting masterful numbers down in Triple-A Durham. He held a 1.03 ERA in 26.1 innings with the Durham Bulls, as well as an impressive 32-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Castillo has been an effective reliever for Cash’s Rays since being called up, posting a 3-2 record with a 3.47 ERA in 3o appearances.
Much like his fellow bullpen mates, Castillo has an absolute rocket of an arm, averaging 96.7 miles per hour on his fastball, while topping out at an eye-popping 101.1 miles per hour. The blazing velocity is a difference maker, but what really has scouts and evaluators turning their heads is his incredible slider. First of all, Castillo’s slider averages 88.3 miles per hour, which is already impressive enough. However, his slider has also topped out at 95 miles per hour, which is flat out ridiculous and nearly impossible to hit. Castillo is holding opposing hitters to a meager .188 batting average against that pitch, and he has notched 33 of his 37 strikeouts with it.
Castillo’s fastball and slider are both incredibly hard to hit; the only problem is that they are the only two pitches he really throws. He has only thrown one other pitch, a sinker, a grand total of four times this season. He will certainly have to establish a third pitch, maybe even a fourth, in order to have continued success in the big leagues. Nevertheless, the raw stuff is there and Castillo has a bright future in this league if he continues to evolve as a pitcher.
Cash’s opener strategy is not likely to catch on throughout the rest of the league. Most teams prioritize having starting pitching depth and, thus, have no need or desire to use relief pitchers are openers. However, Cash may have discovered a treasure trove of young pitchers that will carry the Rays bullpen going forward as the team strives to rebuild.