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Rays Ready For Year Two Of 'The Opener'

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Kevin Cash (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — The Rays brought 'bullpenning' to the forefront of the sport in 2018, and they have no plans to ease up on the strategy.

"I think we’re going to (continue) to see it happen, I know we’re going to to do it,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said on Monday, the first full day of the Winter Meetings.

"Every club values their rotation or their pitching staffs differently, so I think it’s fair to say that if you look at the Astros, the Red Sox, they’ve had a very veteran group of pitchers one through five, that might be a little challenging to do that with.

"We had the perfect storm in that we had so many young guys coming up and transitioning, and I think ultimately it helped both—it helped guys that left Durham as starters graduate to the major leagues, and it also helped some of those shorter relievers stick.”

The strategy was talked about long before the season began, Cash said, but its need was exacerbated by injuries to their traditional starters.

Triple-A Durham started the 2018 season with an enviable collection of relievers that included righthanders Diego Castillo, Ryne Stanek, Hunter Wood and Jaime Schultz. By the end of the season, each of those four had started at least one game in the big leagues.

Among Rays pitchers, Stanek’s 29 starts were second only to Cy Young award winner Blake Snell. Castillo made 11 starts, Wood made eight and Schultz made one.

"Our young guys did a tremendous job filling in,” he said. "And they allowed us some more flexibility.”

The key to optimizing the strategy, according to Cash, is in the mixing and matching of styles. Flamethrowers followed by guys who can carve for a few innings.

"You try to follow the opener with the length guy that follows him,” the manager explained. "The best example is probably a guy like Ryne Stanek coming in that throws very hard, high velocity, and then you complement him with a guy like Ryan Yarbrough, a guy who’s lefthanded and uses a pitch mix to navigate his way through a lineup.

"No doubt, we are convinced that different looks through an order, challenging lineups gives us a good chance.”

After a successful first year utilizing the opener, the Rays have more potential candidates on deck at Triple-A Durham. Righthander Ian Gibaut, who settled in as the Bulls’ closer once other relievers had made their way to the big leagues, used an upper-90s fastball and nasty slider to whiff 75 hitters in 56 innings.

His high-effort, high-octane mentality fits right in line with the Staneks and Castillos of the world, making him an interesting candidate for an opening role. The Rays recently added Gibaut to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.

He could be complemented by one of the most dominant relievers in the minors in 2018, Colin Poche. Acquired from the D-backs in early May, the 25-year-old Poche was dominant from open to close. In 66 innings across three levels, Poche allowed just 33 hits, walked 19 and struck out 110.

He didn’t do it with an upper-90s fastball or a wipeout breaking ball, either. Instead, Poche used elite extension and high spin rates to get swings and misses by the bushel. The lefthander maxed out at three innings three times in 2018, which seemingly puts him in the same position as Yarbrough as the pitcher providing length after the opener.

And while the strategy was met with skepticism at first, Cash and the Rays are ready to go for the second year of openers.

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