How might O's implement 'opener' in 2019?

Karns, Fry, Castro and Yacabonis are options for pitching strategy

March 16th, 2019

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Their roster still very much unsettled with Opening Day a stone’s throw away, the Orioles continue to brainstorm creative ways to combat their considerable uncertainty on the pitching side of things. Using “openers,” the strategy of deploying relievers to begin games ahead of traditional starters, remains very much in play.

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde confirmed as much on Saturday morning, more than a month after executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias floated the idea publicly at the start of camp. Though they’ve made no determinations on when or how often they’ll do so this season, the Orioles, like several other teams, seem destined to workshop it at least once in 2019.

Let’s take a shot at predicting why, when and with whom.

When might they use it?
Simply put, to fill gaps in the rotation behind their three veteran starters. Alex Cobb, Dylan Bundy and Andrew Cashner will get their starts; any finagling with their usage likely comes on the back end, i.e., how often they’ll face lineups a third time through. The Orioles are far less certain about how they’ll deploy their pitchers every fourth and fifth day.

Who might they use it against?
Potential fits: Yankees, Angels, Astros, Rangers, Dodgers and Giants

This is where matchups come in. The Yankees seem like the most likely candidate within the American League East, as the Orioles are going to have to navigate New York’s power-happy lineup 19 times. That lineup is super right-handed. Switch-hitting Aaron Hicks and left-handed-hitting Brett Gardner probably bookend it, but besides them, every other Yankees regular hits from the right side. The Angels (just two projected lefty starters) and Astros (two) both heavily skew right-handed as well. Both also feature some of the most dynamic right-handed hitters in the Majors.

Teams that lean left are scarcer, but the Rangers, with Joey Gallo, Shin Shoo-Choo, Nomar Mazara and Rougned Odor, certainly apply. Baltimore will face the Giants and Dodgers in Interleague Play this season. San Francisco could have five left-handed hitters in its Opening Day lineup, including three in the top four spots. The Dodgers’ roster has so many moving parts, it’s impossible to predict. But teams have tried to counter that depth with openers before, most notably the Brewers in last year’s National League Championship Series.

Who might fit the bill?
Hyde indicated the Orioles would prefer any opener to have Minor League options, which leaves the door open for them to use just about anybody. Ultimately, though, their choice will hinge on a variety of factors. Matchups, roster status, role, performance, et al.

Projecting anyone specific remains conjecture at this point, but the four listed below profile as potential fits.

RHP Nate Karns: A longtime starter, Karns is heading to the bullpen for at least the time being, his role to be determined. The question isn’t how he’d fit at the beginning of games; the Orioles signed him with hopes he’d claim the No. 4 spot in their rotation. The bigger question now is how willing they’d be asking Karns to fill an unconventional role (and the altered preparation/recovery process/routine it would require) after two years battling arm injuries.

LHP Paul Fry: Oddly, Fry posted reverse splits over 35 appearances as a rookie in 2018. But those may end up being an aberration for Fry, a slider-dependent southpaw who looks like a lefty specialist, stuff-wise. If he learns to get lefties out, he’d make a perfect opener candidate; Fry started occasionally in the Minors and was asked to throw multiple innings often last season.

RHP Miguel Castro: Castro is something of a wild card in an Orioles bullpen full of them. He may end up the closer, he may end up in middle relief, he may end up a high-leverage option. But if the Orioles are looking for a right-handed specialist, Castro probably profiles as the best one they have besides Mychal Givens, who likely won’t factor into any experimenting.

Unlike Castro, Givens has been a reliever his entire career, albeit one capable of throwing multiple innings. Castro is a converted starter who has started games in a pinch at the big league level. He also presents a difficult assignment for righties, given his velocity, arm angle and super high-spin slider.

RHP Jimmy Yacabonis: Yacabonis is no stranger to flopping around role-wise. He has started games, finished them, pitched in middle relief and is building up as a swingman this spring. His struggles facing hitters a second time (.340 batting average against the second time through the order, compared to a .172 mark the first time) mean the Orioles probably piggyback Yacabonis if he earns any starts this season, at which point, whether he’s considered an “opener” or not is mere semantics.