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Around the Horn: Rays' bullpen to start it up

Club sticking with 'Opener' after successful first season
January 16, 2019

With Spring Training approaching, MLB.com is taking an in-depth look at the 2019 Rays, breaking the team down position-by-position. In this installment, we are focusing on the bullpen.Most of the talk around the Rays last season was about the "Opener" and the way the club utilized its bullpen. As Tampa

With Spring Training approaching, MLB.com is taking an in-depth look at the 2019 Rays, breaking the team down position-by-position. In this installment, we are focusing on the bullpen.
Most of the talk around the Rays last season was about the "Opener" and the way the club utilized its bullpen. As Tampa Bay moves into the 2019 season, the club has made it clear that it will continue to use the same strategy.
"Oh, we're going to do it," manager Kevin Cash said during the Winter Meetings in December. "I'm very confident that we're going to be doing it definitely twice and potentially three times through the rotation to start the season."
The way the Rays used their bullpen in 2018 caused a lot of chatter throughout baseball. Some teams said the strategy wasn't in their best interest, while others supported it and even embraced it as the season moved along.
For Tampa Bay, it was certainly a move that helped the team finish with 90 wins last season.
Before Sergio Romo was tabbed as the team's starting pitcher on May 19 against the Angels, the Rays ranked 22nd in the Majors in ERA. Once the team introduced its new strategy, the club finished with the third-lowest ERA in baseball, behind just the Dodgers and the Astros.
The Rays have some questions heading into the 2019 season, but having enough talented arms is certainly not one of them.

Opener candidates:Diego Castillo, Emilio Pagan, Ryne Stanek, Hunter Wood
For the most part, the Rays have preferred to use a hard thrower as their opener. Romo was the first to do it, mostly because of his experience and willingness to try something new. But once Tampa Bay rolled out the experiment a couple of times, it began to lean more on Stanek, Wood and Castillo.
Stanek, whose four-seam fastball often reaches triple digits, started 29 games and quickly became Cash's primary option to open games. The 27-year-old reliever embraced the role and had a lot of success in it, finishing with a 2.22 ERA in the first inning.

Castillo had mixed results in his 11 starts last season. The 24-year-old could have the best stuff out of this group, but he seemed to struggle with opening games in his first few attempts. He'll get every opportunity to flash his sinker, which tops at around 100 mph.
Wood -- who displayed a strong fastball, slider and curveball combination -- also excelled in the first inning, finishing with a 1.12 ERA in his eight starts last season.

As for Pagan, he was acquired in a three-team deal with the A's and the Rangers in December, and he has never been used as an opener. Pagan had an impressive rookie season with the A's, finishing the season with a 3.28 FIP in 2017. However, the right-hander struggled with walks last season (from eight in 2017 to 19 in '18), which saw his FIP increase to 4.92.
Late-game options:Jose Alvarado, Chaz Roe
The Rays will be losing Romo and his 25 saves, but unless the team adds a veteran reliever to the back end of the bullpen, it will likely be Alvarado and Roe closing games to begin the season.
"We always like some experience to help the group along and provide some calmness in tough situations," Rays vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom said. "But at the same time, sometimes the best man for the job might be someone that's less experienced, and we want to make sure that we give every chance to our young guys to step up and step into big roles."

Alvarado is one of those young players, and he could be one of the best young relievers in baseball. While Alvarado didn't get many chances to close games last season, he showed glimpses of having the necessary mindset to be a closer. The hard-throwing left-hander finished second on the team with eight saves. He finished the season with a 2.39 ERA and had success against hitters from both sides of the plate. Thanks to a vastly improved cutter, Alvarado fared better against right-handed hitters, who ended the year with a .167 batting average, while lefties finished with a .215 average.
Roe, who has one of the best sliders in baseball, could also be an option for Cash and Tampa Bay in late-game situations. The 32-year-old right-hander finished the 2018 season with a 3.58 ERA and set career highs in innings pitched (50 1/3) and strikeouts (53) despite missing time with a left knee injury.

Depth:Oliver Drake, Ian Gibaut, Adam Kolarek, Colin Poche, Ryan Merritt, Hoby Milner, Andrew Kittredge
Out of this list, the two names that stand out are prospects Poche and Gibaut. Poche is the No. 24 prospect in the Rays' organization, according to MLB Pipeline, while Gibaut comes in at No. 29.
Poche, who was acquired from the D-backs as the player to be named in the Steven Souza Jr. deal, was one of the most dominant pitchers in the Minors last season. The left-handed reliever ended the season with a 0.82 ERA and struck out a staggering 110 batters in just 66 innings between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham. Tampa Bay loves his strikeout ability, and while he's not on the 40-man roster, there's a strong chance that Poche will be pitching at Tropicana Field at some point in 2019.
Kolarek served as a quality left-handed option for the Rays last season, and he will likely be in that role heading into this season. He finished with a 2.58 FIP in 34 1/3 innings last season, but most important, he limited left-handed hitters to a .208/.222/.302 slash line.

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com.