Why the Rays could use fewer openers in 2023

January 28th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry’s Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Jeffrey Springs had plenty of reasons to be excited on Wednesday.

He was proud to have earned a four-year, $31 million contract that could be worth up to $65.75 million over the next five years, and he was thrilled to commit to the Rays, who have helped bring out the best in him over the last two years. Springs was perhaps a little overwhelmed thinking about his journey from being a 30th-round Draft pick to where he is now.

And he was really looking forward to being part of a potentially special Tampa Bay rotation.

The 30-year-old left-hander pitched “as well as just about anybody in baseball” after moving into the rotation last season, as president of baseball operations Erik Neander said, but Springs will likely slot into the middle of a group that also features Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Drew Rasmussen and free-agent acquisition Zach Eflin.

“I'm excited to be a part of it, and I'm excited to continue to learn and grow with these guys and see how far we can take it. The talent of those guys … is off the charts,” Springs said. “I think it could be a very special group. There's a ton of talent, and then there's just a lot of desire to compete and want to get better on a daily basis.”

There’s also a full five-man rotation in place. Nearly five years after Sergio Romo trotted to the mound at Angel Stadium and the opener became a regular part of the Rays’ pitching plan, they’ve built back toward having a more traditional starting staff.

Tampa Bay has used an opener 151 times since introducing the concept on May 19, 2018, if you count the postseason, and gone 91-60 in those games. For comparison, no Rays pitcher has started more than 72 games since the beginning of the '18 season, including the postseason, and only four have made more than 50 starts.

Sending out a reliever to start the game has been an effective strategy, a different way of dividing up a contest, and it’s remained a product of the Rays’ aim to put the pitchers they have in the best position to succeed. Slotting in the occasional opener/bullpen game can also help them manage their starters’ workloads, as noted in last week’s newsletter.

The idea isn’t going away, but as things stand now, Tampa Bay may be able to cut back on its use of openers this year. The club feels confident it will begin the season with a rotation that, one through five, gives it a chance to win every day.

After Springs secured his spot, the Rays found some stability in their rotation last season. Four traditional starters -- Corey Kluber, McClanahan, Rasmussen and Springs -- made at least 25 starts for the first time since 2015. (If you correctly reeled off that foursome of Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Erasmo Ramirez and Nate Karns, congratulations.)

But the fifth spot was in flux last year. Fourteen pitchers combined to start/open the other 50 games, nobody else made more than nine starts and the Rays used an opener 21 times, going 12-9 in those games. With Glasnow back and Eflin on board, plus further Major League-ready depth in Yonny Chirinos, Luis Patiño, Josh Fleming and eventually top prospect Taj Bradley, that may not be necessary this season.

The Rays haven’t had five starters take the ball at least 25 times in one season since 2010, when James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price, Jeff Niemann and Andy Sonnanstine each made 29 or more trips to the mound. If they stay healthy, might that change this year?