Major League Baseball’s newest position? The Opener

OAKLAND — Bruce Maxwell was stunned, stupefied.

“What the f—,” the Oakland A’s catcher gasped. “That’s so interesting.”

Maxwell had just been introduced to the opener. It’s a new concept in baseball, one employed most recently by the Tampa Bay Rays: Starting a reliever to essentially serve as a closer for the start of a game. They did it twice last week with former Giants reliever Sergio Romo.

“F—,’ a still-astounded Maxwell added. “So interesting.”

Like the Rays, the A’s are among the most-forward thinking franchises in the sport. Looking back at the transaction ledger over the past calendar year, it becomes apparent that Oakland is well-positioned to adapt the strategy of the opener, should the team want to follow suit.

In theory, the opener only has to face the opposing lineup once, allowing a starter the luxury of not facing a lineup three times.

“I could see where that makes sense just because it’s one of the top guys coming in to attempt to shut down the top of the lineup,” Maxwell said. “I could kind of see doing that to try and get through the first round.”

Manager Bob Melvin, the king of platoons, fully grasps the underlying principle.

“You almost have to look at it like a little bit more like a bullpen day against you,” Melvin said. “And we’re not afraid to match up either.”

In Thursday’s 3-2 win over the Seattle Mariners, the A’s had their own bullpen day — a common sight in college, where a spate of relievers pitch mid-week non-conference games, if a team doesn’t have a reliable fourth arm.

Josh Lucas handled the first two innings before Chris Hatcher, Yusmeiro Petit, and 2018 breakout relievers Lou Trevino and Blake Treinen entered from the bullpen.

Dating back to the middle of last July when the A’s plucked Treinen from the Washington Nationals as part of a five-player deal, the club has been stockpiling bullpen arms. Hatcher arrived from the Los Angeles Dodgers in August, Emilio Pagan was acquired from the Mariners in November, Ryan Buchter was picked up from the Kansas City Royals in January and Lucas joined from the St. Louis Cardinals on the final day of March.

Amid those trades, the versatile Petit — one of two Major League free-agent additions — inked to a two-year, $10 million pact.

Melvin treaded lightly when asked about the opener phenomenon and whether it could enter his managerial arsenal.

“You know what, I’d have to see it first hand,” Melvin added. “When you talked about Romo, it looked like it was pretty case specific with the first three or four guys in the Angels lineup.”

Romo, with his wipeout slider, was the ideal pitcher to face an Angel battering order headlined by a quartet of right-handed hitters in Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, Justin Upton and Albert Pujols.

Romo and the Rays arrive in Oakland on Monday for a four-game series.

“It’s an interesting philosophy and I guess they’ve had some success with it,” Melvin said. “So, we’ll take a look at it first hand. Again, once they get here and we play then I’ll take a harder look at it but I’m very aware of the Romo situation against the Angels.”

Not everyone is as ready as Melvin to embrace — or at least entertain — the opener.

“I don’t like it,” said one A’s pitcher, who preferred to remain anonymous. “No, I don’t. There’s obviously a good thought behind it. The intentions are good but I think it messes with the game too much.”

The main concerns are jobs, and money.

“How much do relievers get paid compared to starters?” the pitcher asked.

With the opener, the Rays could be pioneering a new future in roster construction where only two to three traditional starters — the big earners — are in the fold. The rest of the staff could potentially consist of relievers, often the low-men on the salary totem pole when it comes to major league payrolls.

While the opener makes sense as an analytical concept — especially for cash-strapped teams like the A’s and Rays — there is also the human element to consider.

“It takes away the confidence of guys that you have in your organization that are starters,” the pitcher said. “I think it’s just — I don’t know. I’m just not on board with it. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. I’m just not on board with it.”

On Monday, Maxwell, Melvin and the rest of the A’s will likely get their first up-close look at the opener.

“It’s just very interesting,” the pitcher said. “Because there’s a lot of angles you can look at it, a lot of ways you can take it and have a conversation.”

Karl Buscheck
Published by
Karl Buscheck

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