You probably know the story already. Last year, the Rays' rotation was young, inexperienced and also in shambles due to injuries. So they got creative, innovated and adopted the now famous Opener. Sergio Romo - starting baseball games? It was weird, fun and glorious at the same time.
The Rays weren't supposed to look like a contender, yet they had the 6th lowest ERA in the league and won 90 games in the AL East with a living-in-a-van-down-by-the-river sized budget. Even playoff teams like Oakland stood up and took notice and started to adopt The Opener as well.
The Cardinals would be wise to do the same in 2019. Why?
Well, there's a good reason some fans are banging the drum for the Cardinals to sign Dallas Keuchel or even Gio Gonzalez.
Carlos Martinez is starting the season on the IL with shoulder concerns. His role is now up in the air, and Shidlt and Maddux keep freaking me out with all this Carlos for reliever talk.
Mikolas and Flaherty are being counted on for 32 starts, but after that things start to look shaky. Wacha and Wainwright are both coming off spending most of their year on the DL. If we got 50 starts out of both of them, I'd be thrilled.
That still leaves 20-25% of the Cardinals starts to be filled in by some combo of C-Mart (if healthy and if management doesn't make him a reliever), John Gant, Austin Gomber, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Dakota Hudson. Yikes.
Since the Cardinals have expressed 0 interest in Keuchel or Gio Gonzalez, they ought to get creative.
Don't get me wrong. I don't believe management is open to the idea - pun intended. But here Shildt has an opportunity to show he's no Matheny. In what should be an ultra-competitive division, the Cardinals need to scratch out whatever advantages they can possibly dig up. And The Opener could do just the trick.
The logic behind deploying a reliever to start is simple. The advantage of having a relief ace start the game rather than come in later is because more runs are scored in the 1st inning than any other inning. The team that scores first wins 2/3rds of the time. By beginning the game with a pitcher with dominant stuff, you give your team a better chance to grab an early lead.
But most importantly, the "times through the order penalty" is a real thing. Batters have a big advantage by the time a pitcher is ready to go through the opposing a 3rd time.
This is particularly true of the main Cardinals' main 4th and 5th starter options. Granted we're looking at small samples here, but behold the gnarliness:
Gant: ERA 8.04, wOBA .365
Gomber: ERA 6.17, wOBA.354
Wainwright: ERA 7.62, wOBA .351 (2017)
In other words, the third time through the lineup and every batter turns into the equivalent of facing the 2018 version of Javier Baez.
Now I'm not saying these numbers have predictive value, the fact is all pitchers suffer from the times through the order penalty, but for what's worth at least these three are probably going to be the most exposed.
So why not remove these three from having to throw a 3rd time through the lineup by having someone else start the first? These three all need their innings limited anyway. Gant or Gomber are still young, and Wainwright is older and hasn't been able to stay on the field.
The need is obvious. So who could the Cardinals deploy as an opener?
Enter Alex Reyes. The Cardinals are trying to limit his innings and let him nurse his way back to health. He's already likely to throw almost exclusively in relief in 2019. His stuff has been impressive this spring. Here's what Shildt had to say after Reyes threw on March 12th:
"I’m hesitant to use the word dominant, but that was pretty impressive, right?” All pitches in command. Late breaking ball. Fastball, good velocity. Good location. A lot of soft, no contact. That’s pretty special stuff. That’s Alex Reyes."
Indeed. Having Reyes throw 1-2 innings with his electric stuff to start and help protect Wainwright or Gantombersondeleon makes a too much sense to me. Plus Reyes is already used to starting, so this seems like a surefire win to me.
Now the Rays didn't just deploy one opener, they used three. Since the Cardinals practically seem hellbent on using Carlos Martinez as a reliever this year, Tsunami here makes sense. It would let him ease his way back into the rotation, limit his innings, and let him go out and dazzle with nothing held back.
As he eventually feels stronger, Martinez could always be stretched back into full starts as God intended him to. C-Mart has the experience in both roles of relief and starting, this would be the best of both worlds, at least for now.
Just imagine something like:
Martinez - 1st inning
Martinez - 2nd inning
Wainwright - 3rd inning
Wainwright - 4th inning
Wainwright - 5th inning
Wainwright - 6th inning
Wainwright - 7th inning
Miller - 8th inning
Hicks - 9th inning
Reyes - 1st inning
Gant - 2nd inning
Gant - 3rd inning
Gant - 4th inning
Gant - 5th inning
Gant - 6th inning
Brebbia - 7th inning
Miller - 8th inning
Hicks - 9th inning
The addition of the lefty Miller is what makes this all work. Last year's bullpen was one clown popping out of the car after another. Miller brings needed stability as well as a reliable lefty for platoon advantages, even though he certainly isn't limited to just platoons.
The bottom line is this: The Cardinals have too many question marks in the rotation right now given their combination of injuries and youth. They made some nice additions in the off-season, but let's face it, they're probably done making moves until July. In an extremely competitive division, they need to squeeze out whatever advantages they can.
Now's not the time to be orthodox. With Goldy only guaranteed being a Cardinal for a year, this is the time to do the weird.