Among the biggest changes in on-field strategy this year is the Rays’ use of an “opener,” or a starting pitcher who isn’t a traditional starter in style and is expected to throw only an inning or two. While certainly notable, the role itself isn’t my interest here. Rather, I’d like to consider how Tampa Bay has cobbled together a staff from Blake Snell and a cast of misfit toys.
From talking to sources in and around the Rays, the use of an “opener” wasn’t a purposeful strategic shift on the organization’s part, but rather an attempt by the club to deploy the talent present on the roster in the most effective way possible. Snell is the only pitcher who won’t get an opener in front of him, while the rest varies game-to-game based on matchups and other factors. Much like the best coach in the NFL, the Rays are using a player’s strengths and building a scheme around it rather than building a roster around a scheme.
Consider this characterization of Bill Belichick’s coaching philosophy by Greg Bedard of SI in the context of Tampa Bay and their pitching strategy:
On both sides of the ball, the scheme is multiple and adaptable both to personnel and to specific opponents. The Patriots are never a team that just ‘does what it does’ on either side of the ball. There must be a level of unpredictability.
Recently acquired former top prospect Tyler Glasnow has been notably better in his 12 innings with the Rays, but the role the right-hander typically fills (the longest outing on his pitching day, usually after the opener) is a one that could create a competitive advantage for the Rays in player procurement.
Glasnow, and essentially everyone on the Rays staff except for Snell, isn’t currently good enough both to (a) take the ball every fifth day and then (b) consistently and effectively pitch from the first inning into the sixth. The reasons vary for the different pitchers used in this role, but it boils down to lack of secondary stuff or lack of consistent command.
Having a pitcher go three or four innings after entering in the second or third allows a club to curate matchups to the benefit of this second pitcher. Not pushing him to throw 100 pitches both lets him go max effort and also avoid hitters a third time through the lineup — while also opening up the chance to use him on shorter rest than usual.
From looking at who has filled this role for the Rays, sources have agreed there are three types of pitchers who fit into this job: the high-octane-stuff/questionable-command group (like Glasnow), the big-fastball/average-everything-else group (like Ryne Stanek), and the solid-average-stuff/advanced-command group (like Jalen Beeks). The members of each group can provide multiple quality innings but ended up in the industry’s discard pile because their three-pitch mix is wasted in one-inning stints and they aren’t good enough to be a traditional starter at the moment.
The Rays can be aggressive in acquiring and using misfit toys from other organizations with their new staff roles. Tampa Bay has four spots on their staff for young, mostly unproven three- to four-inning pitchers whom other clubs struggle to develop.
Those 29 other pitching staffs are mostly comprised of traditional starters and two-pitch, one-inning relievers. Both of those traditional roles are priced efficiently in the market, while this “second pitcher” is often available at a discount. This type of prospect usually ends up stuck in some sort of developmental purgatory, often getting a short leash in the big leagues, while the club tries to fit the round peg into one of those two square holes.
Since the Rays have a new trend of trading any non-core player once they hit arbitration for multiple upper-minors prospects who will soon play for the league minimum, let’s try to find their next “second pitchers.”
First, some criteria: prospect eligible (THE BOARD comes in handy for this sort of exercise), not in the top-50 overall (every team wants those guys and they aren’t often traded), in Double-A or higher (guys who are MLB-ready or close to it), currently healthy, and not in the Rays organization already. These aren’t the pitchers most like Glasnow, Stanek, and Beeks, but these are the best versions of that type of pitcher. I’ll limit myself to five candidates in each group, with some honorable mentions.
The Tyler Glasnow Group
Huge stuff, some issues when left in a game too long. Possible durability and/or track-record concerns.
Two plus pitches, third pitch is 55 or better, command is 45 or 50.
1. Touki Toussaint, RHP, Braves (MLB) – 50 FV, 56th overall
2. Jon Duplantier, RHP, D-backs (AA) – 50 FV, 79th overall
3. Dennis Santana, RHP, Dodgers (AAA) – 50 FV, 105th overall
4. Hector Perez, RHP, Blue Jays (AA) – 45 FV
5. Jacob Nix, RHP, Padres (MLB) – 40+ FV
A few other pitchers are very close to qualifying for this group. A couple Padres (RHP Chris Paddack and RHP Michel Baez) sit just outside the top-50 overall constraint, but their command grades are too good to qualify. One pitcher, Pirates RHP Luis Escobar, just got to Double-A and hasn’t performed well so far, so he loses a tiebreaker with Nix. He’d be sixth, though. Six other pitchers, meanwhile, have one 60 and two 55 pitches, so their stuff is slightly behind the five listed, but close enough that this is splitting hairs: Phillies RHP Enyel De Los Santos, White Sox RHP Dane Dunning, Astros RHP Corbin Martin, Blue Jays RHP Sean Reid-Foley, A’s RHP Miguel Romero, and Yankees LHP Justus Sheffield.
The Rays’ newest pitcher is RHP Shane Baz, just acquired as the PTBNL in the Chris Archer deal, and he fits pretty clearly in this group. Baz has plus stuff, below-average present command, and enough raw talent to turn into a traditional starter, generally similar to Glasnow. He would fit near the top of this group if he were in Double-A, but he’s still in a short-season league now, as he’s 19 and was drafted out of a Texas high school last summer.
The Ryne Stanek Group
Standout fastball, starter-quality command, not enough offspeed to get through an MLB lineup three times.
A 60 or better fastball, 45-to-55 on the breaking ball, changeup and command.
1. Cionel Perez, LHP, Astros (MLB) – 50 FV, 103rd overall
2. Beau Burrows, RHP, Tigers (AA) – 50 FV, 128th overall
3. Bryse Wilson, RHP, Braves (AAA) – 45+ FV
4. Ryan Helsley, RHP, Cardinals (AAA) – 45 FV
5. T.J. Zeuch, RHP, Blue Jays (AA) – 45 FV
There isn’t a long honorable mention list here, as these five separated themselves from the rest of the pack.
The Jalen Beeks Group
Solid-average stuff with above-average command and some funk/deception which, during the third time through the order, becomes less effective against MLB hitters.
Three pitches ranging from 45 to 60, average pitch grade between 50 and 55, command 55 or better.
1. Griffin Canning, RHP, Angels (AAA) – 50 FV, 91st overall
2. Kolby Allard, LHP, Braves (MLB) – 50 FV, 104th overall
3. JoJo Romero, LHP, Phillies (AA) – 45+ FV
4. Shaun Anderson, RHP, Giants (AAA) – 45 FV
5. Pablo Lopez, RHP, Marlins (MLB) – 45 FV
A number of pitchers could qualify for this list if not for losing a current performance tiebreaker (Rockies RHP Peter Lambert and Phillies LHP Ranger Suarez), if I opted to include some 45 fastball types (Indians RHP Eli Morgan, Twins LHP Devin Smeltzer, Royals LHP Foster Griffin, Angels LHP Jose Suarez, A’s RHP Logan Shore), or if he gets promoted to Double-A, which could be very soon (Indians RHP Nick Sandlin). Here’s a little more on Sandlin.
There’s also some interesting 40 FV types who would be next up using the current criteria: Reds RHP Jimmy Herget, Blue Jays LHP Thomas Pannone, D-backs RHP Taylor Clarke, Indians RHP Aaron Civale, and Royals LHP Richard Lovelady.
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.