Orioles manager Buck Showalter doesn’t want to place a label on what he’s been forced to do, starting right-handed reliever Evan Phillips to fill the rotation hole for Monday night’s series opener against the Toronto Blue Jays.
He does steer away from the “opener” term, which is a practice the division-rival Tampa Bay Rays have used with success, designating a reliever to pitch the first one or two innings before inserting another pitcher who can provide more length, a philosophy of almost using a bullpen backward.
The Orioles would prefer to be conventional. But necessity has forced them to be creative.
“And that’s fine,” Showalter quipped. “Necessity is the mother of invention. That’s kind of where Tampa was and where we are.”
In form, it’s an approach similar to the Rays’. Phillips will likely be able to provide between 20 and 40 pitches, and how he’s able to be effective with those pitches will determine how many innings he can provide, but ultimately, the Orioles have turned to this approach more because of necessity than strategy.
“Tonight is the reason Tampa [Bay] was doing it, and through it, the strength and weaknesses of it,” Showalter said. “ Like I said before, [even] with [Rays Cy Young Award contender Blake] Snell, other teams are having to do it. I don’t know what that’s saying about the state of pitching in baseball today. Think about it. It’s happening a lot and it’s happening in September.”
The Blue Jays aren’t the best lineup for this approach. Showalter will likely turn to a long-relief left-hander to replaced Phillips — someone like Sean Gilmartin or Donnie Hart — to turn around the Toronto batting order. Even though they fielded a lineup with three switch-hitters and two left-handers, their splits against left-handed pitching (.234) are just six points less than against righties (.240).
But a rash of injuries to starting pitchers — it’s uncertain when Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner and rookie Luis Ortiz will next pitch — along with younger pitchers such as left-hander Josh Rogers already meeting their innings limits, leaves the Orioles short-handed even though rosters are expanded.
All eight of Phillips’ major league appearances going into Monday have been in relief, and he’s made just one start in 140 career minor league appearances, but the Orioles believe he can help fill this unique role because of the multiple innings he can provide and also because Toronto hasn’t seen him yet.
“I’m not saying,” Showalter said when asked how long he plans to go with Phillips. “I’m not telling anybody that. I know what he’s physically able to do and what I hope he does. It’s kind of like taking — not unknown stuffwise — but with some of his time off and what have you, I want to get that in there first.”
A rain-filled forecast for Monday — the game started in a delay — also played a role in Showalter’s decision to start Phillips, but the Orioles will need another starter for Wednesday night’s series finale against the Blue Jays, and right-hander Dillon Tate and left-hander John Means had extended work days in Sarasota, Fla., on Monday to potentially prepare what would be their first big league call-ups.
“We’ve got eight guys, currently four here, who can’t currently pitch. We’ve got four more if you go back to some of the others — [Rule 5 draftreliever Pedro] Araujo and some of the others, [reliever Richard] Bleier — there’s eight of them. … Within certain markets it [is a trend]. Look at it. Where’s it happening. If you’re providing all your depth from the minors leagues, boy, you better be good at the draft, the international market, the whole nine yards.”
The Rays enter Monday 40-30 in games in which they haven’t used a traditional starter, and they have a 3.41 ERA in the first inning. They also have used 31 pitchers, including 16 starters, both club records. Nine of the 16 pitchers currently on the Tampa Bay roster are rookies.
More recently, the Oakland Athletics — a team contending for a postseason spot despite rotation injuries and short starts — have used the approach over the past month.
By comparison, the Orioles have used 28 pitchers this season, and Phillips will be the 13th to make a start, and the sixth rookie. But that number has to be put in the context of the team’s massive trade deadline roster overhaul as well.
Regardless, Showalter is forced to steal a page out of other’s books, even though it’s being done because of need.
“You better have a maneuverable bullpen, you better have a 10-day DL rule change, and you better have some optionable pieces, which [those teams] do,” Showalter said. “As the industry goes on, pitchers in the major leagues who have options are going to become real valuable. It’s like that utility position I’ve been telling you all about. The larger-market teams, it’s another thing that separates the two markets.”