Perhaps no story in MLB last weekend generated more buzz than one relating to a team far from first place, one that has limited starting rotation depth and faces an uphill climb in a loaded American League East.
The Rays, an analytically savvy team that has long executed unorthodox, yet generally effective, tactics to gain an edge, deployed reliever Sergio Romo as their starter on both Saturday and Sunday against the Angels, marking the first time that a pitcher made "starts" on back-to-back days since Zack Greinke in 2012 (though Greinke's were due to an ejection quirk). The club will use the same general strategy this weekend, starting Romo on Friday and Sunday against the Orioles at Tropicana Field and turning to another righty reliever, Ryne Stanek, to start on Saturday.
The essence of the Rays' strategy was to limit production in what is the most productive inning of the game. In the aggregate, 791 runs had been scored in the first frame this year as of Tuesday, significantly more than any other. And, acknowledging the small sample, the strategy proved effective, as Romo tossed 2 1/3 scoreless frames last weekend, even striking out Zack Cozart, Michael Trout and Justin Upton -- the most threatening part of the Angels' lineup -- in a 5-3 win on Saturday.
Cozart was vocal about his opposition to the strategy, saying that it thwarted his pre-at-bat approach in an interview with The Athletic.
"I don't think that's good for baseball, in my opinion," Cozart said. "It's definitely weird, not knowing who you're going to face in your first couple of at-bats. … Usually, you have a starter and you think you're going to have three at-bats, probably. So you're going to use the first at-bat and you want to have success, see what he has if you haven't faced him before, stuff like that. When you're going Spring Training style, it's definitely a different ballgame. It's Spring Training; that's the best way I could describe it. I hope it doesn't go in that direction."
With that in mind, MLB.com polled a handful of other players and front-office personnel from other clubs to gauge reaction to the Rays' novel strategy. Here are some of their responses:
Aaron Boone, Yankees manager: "With some of the injuries they have and not having a full five-man rotation, you get the wisdom of it a little bit, especially in that matchup where you know you want your guy that is a heavy platoon split against righties, where you know you're going to be facing them. I think in their situation, there's some wisdom to it, and I know they've had some success with it. It's a little outside of the box, obviously, but I think it made some sense. … I never say never down the road, because you never know what your roster looks like, but I can't see that with the way our roster is constructed right now."
Mickey Callaway, Mets manager: "You have to show trust in your players. You need players that you can trust. And when you're talking about doing something like that, that's what I would worry about the most. Now, I'm sure that they had conversations with everyone and explained to them why they're doing it. But I think that psyche is the thing that I would be most concerned about. In my mind, maybe they're just trying to eliminate that third time through [the order], so the starting pitcher's second time through is the third time through."
Jesse Chavez, RP, Rangers: "It's not baseball. You're not benefiting anybody but the organization. When is it going to be about the player and not the plan? They always say it is about the player. There is a lot more risk than reward in that. I don't think it's good unless they are building around a bunch of long guys."
Craig Counsell, Brewers manager: "It presents different challenges in our league, [the National League], so you end up moving back when the inning that the starting pitcher ... needs to come up -- and sooner in an inning where you really need to hit for him, or if you need to hit for him too soon. It's a different question in our league, I think, but there are still answers for it. We've talked about, but it's a more complicated question."
James Dozier, 2B, Twins: "[The Rays] have always had great pitchers. I was just talking with some of the guys who came from Tampa Bay, and they rave about their analytic department and pitching staff and coaches and stuff like that, so obviously they know what they're doing. So it's a cool thing to see."
Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Nationals: "I think it's fine if you have a guy that's kind of a been a bullpen starter guy [coming in right after]. I dont think you can do it with a guy that's started his whole career, because we have our routines and stuff. It's out there, that's for sure. ... I mean, with the Angles lineup, they're one of the few teams with five righties to start off, so it makes senses if you get a lineup like that with Romo, who has been good on righties his whole career. But, yeah, it's nothing I think I want to be a part of."
Neal Huntington, Pirates GM: "It is interesting. We'll dive into it a little bit. We like our rotation's ability to get right- or left[-handed hitters] out of the gate, but it is something that's an interesting concept. Twenty years from now, when you guys are talking to somebody else, maybe that's the norm. We'll see."
Kenley Jansen, RP, Dodgers: "That sure won't fly in the playoffs."
Nate Jones, RP, White Sox: "Overall, the first inning is where all the runs are scored. So I don't know. It makes sense, but am I on board with it all the way? I'm still on the fence about it. I'm glad the Rays had success with it so far, but we'll see if it can be sustained."
Gabe Kapler, Phillies manager: "I think there's some gamesmanship there, but I also think there's some respect. If we get indication from a club that they're going to have a starter going the next day, we're going to put our lineup in to account for that. But I think what the Rays were doing is they're not going to change the first three hitters in their lineup, because those are the first three hitters in their lineup."
Kevin McCarthy, RP, Royals: "The thing that would be a concern would be using up one of your best relievers that early. I always feel like the toughest outs are the last outs, because that's when hitters are really the most locked in, because they know they are running out of chances. And what happens if you don't have one of your best guys then?"
Paul Molitor, Twins manager: "I haven't really thought it through, but off the top of my head, I don't think I would do much different. You've got to trust the players you put out there. I think every once in awhile, you encounter situations where you know a guy is not going to go very deep in the game, whether coming from an injury situation or whatever, but I would still try to find a way to play from the lead if I could, put my best guys out there."
Adam Ottavino, RP, Rockies: "It's a strategy for a team that's struggling in the first inning. They're trying something out of the box, and they don't have the Astros' rotation. It's good for them to go for it. It worked out the first night. ... But you need to have full buy-in from the team. But that can change, too, because guys don't want to do something that's going to hurt them in [arbitration]. There are so many layers to it.
"What Tampa has going right now is working because Romo doesn't care. He's fine doing it. And they're not doing it when they're pitching [Chris] Archer or when they're pitching [Blake] Snell. They're doing it with [Ryan] Yarbrough, who's a rookie, basically, and [Matt] Andriese.
"The other part of it is the first inning is when the most runs are scored. There are probably a lot of reasons for that. Starters tend to -- and I did this as a starter -- try to ease into the game. A reliever doesn't do that.
"Like I said, good for them. They're trying something. They don't give a damn what anybody else thinks. They're trying to win games."
Manny Pina, C, Brewers: "I don't know. It's weird. I would prefer calling up a guy from Triple-A [instead of] starting a reliever. I think you need your good relievers in the bullpen. When you start with a reliever, it's kind of tough later on. But if it works for them, that's fine for them. But my opinion, I would rather send for someone in Triple-A and save the reliever."
Dave Roberts, Dodgers manager: "Good for Sergio. Making history."
Neil Walker, 2B, Yankees: "It doesn't change. You may face a guy that you've never faced before -- that's always a challenge -- but we have so much information on the bench. If five different guys throw in the first five innings and you get two at-bats against two different guys, you're typically as prepared as you can be. You have video, you have all that stuff, and usually guys have faced guys in the past. Personally, I don't see it as an advantage for them, but that's clearly not the way they see it."
Alex Wilson, RP, Tigers: "You listen to commentary from Cozart and those guys, and they said it felt like Spring Training, which they were obviously were not very comfortable or happy about. So, in theory, it worked. We're not here to make friends."
Jordan Zimmermann, SP, Tigers: "I don't think they'd ever do it for a veteran starter. I don't think it's really good for anything. Bringing a starter out in the second inning like that doesn't qualify him for a game started, and it's going to cause a lot of stuff down the road, I think. That and the whole arbitration thing, it's going to make for a mess, I think."
Joe Maddon, Cubs manager: "If you do something like that, first of all, when you don't have enough starters that you like, then you may choose to do something on a day, maybe two days. But to see that becoming a part of the norm, I doubt it. If you want to do it that way, you'd really need to nurture that in the Minor Leagues for a long period of time to really get guys acclimated to that, but I think you're going to wear out bullpen dudes if you do something like that. ... Because it worked, it becomes attractive. Had it not worked, we wouldn't talk about it. I don't think it's going to be a method that's utilized often."
Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.