Pirates exploring the use of an opener in '19

December 11th, 2018

LAS VEGAS -- The Pirates are open to the idea of using the opener next season.
Shortly after completing the trade that sent right-hander to the White Sox, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington acknowledged that Pittsburgh has discussed the possibility of filling his rotation spot with an "opener" and an innings-eating "follower," a strategy that turned out to be surprisingly successful for the Rays last season.
That's only one option for the Pirates as they look to round out their rotation. Huntington said they aren't committed to it yet. Pittsburgh will continue to look at starters who are available as free agents or on the trade market. could compete for that spot with current candidates like and .
Or maybe the Pirates will eschew traditional every-fifth-day roles and trot out an opener: a reliever who starts the game.
"How do we build a bullpen that equips us to be able to utilize the opener, if that's the direction we decide to go in?" Huntington said Tuesday at the Winter Meetings. "As of right now, Brault and Kingham are internal options that we feel good about. Do we get creative with the opener? And where else can we go on the free-agent [or] trade market?"
The Rays utilized the opener most often, mainly out of necessity to prop up their injury-ravaged rotation, but other clubs adopted the strategy as the year went on. The Twins experimented with the opener in September. The A's used in the role to start the American League Wild Card Game. The Brewers created their own terminology, referring to their starters as "initial out-getters" as they bullpenned their way deep into the postseason.
It's different from an old-fashioned "bullpen game," because one pitcher is still responsible for covering most of games started by openers. But that "follower," as Huntington called it, doesn't have to face the top of the lineup, which is typically stacked with a club's best hitters, three times in one game. Statistics show that most pitchers are significantly less effective the third time through the order.
The Pirates might not do it at all if someone establishes himself as a reliable fifth starter, but Huntington said he's had conversations about the concept with manager Clint Hurdle. It would require a deep, durable bullpen with plenty of viable relief options waiting in Triple-A. But they wouldn't need to put that plan into action as often as the Rays did because they have four established starters: , Chris Archer, and Joe Musgrove.
"If we go in that direction, it will take some conversations. It will take some explaining," Huntington added. "It will take some buy-in, not only from those who are involved, but from those who are around it."