Orioles still sorting out starting rotation as team toys with deploying an opener

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde maintained Saturday that the rotation competition was still on entering the last stretch of camp, with several pitchers still vying for spots and the possibility of adopting the "opener" strategy remaining in play.

Hyde chalked up some of his lack of clarity about how Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy would line up behind Alex Cobb in the rotation to the fact that those conversations are so fluid. Cashner is currently on a schedule to pitch second with Bundy third.

Those talks, presumably with executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, include figuring out if there's a fit with the opener. The Tampa Bay Rays used the strategy to great effect last year by starting a relief pitcher then turning over the game to someone with starter length to attack the lineup after the top hitters have already batted once.

"We're talking about a lot of different things," Hyde said. "That's why … I'm pretty vague about the last couple games, or how after the first three days of the season, kind of what we're going to do because we're still discussing and figuring a lot of that stuff out. We're not solidified in anything from the standpoint of the back end of the rotation, as well as how we're going to use our bullpen. It's still yet to be determined."

Hyde elaborated on a number of rotation-related topics Saturday ahead of Cobb's start against the Toronto Blue Jays, including the optimal amount of pitches a starter can reach in a game before heading north — between 80 and 85 — and how he doesn't care if the team has any complete games this year.

But the opener was one he declined to elaborate on. Asked if he has pitchers who are well-suited for that role, he said, "I'm not going to get into specifics, but I think that we have a lot of guys that do."

The Rays would typically start a pitcher who could give them up to two innings before bringing in another pitcher to pitch deeper into the game. Right-hander Sergio Romo would typically be paired with left-hander Ryan Yarbrough, for example.

There are plenty of benefits to going that route. First, there's the notion that entering a game after the other team's best batters have hit makes for an easier assignment for a pitcher, so giving it to someone who can turn the lineup over twice means they can avoid seeing the top of the order for a third time in a precarious late-game situation.

It also allows teams to match up better against lineups heavy from one side of the plate, and possibly reduces the amount of wear and tear on starters' arms by keeping their innings down.

To execute it, a team needs a flexible 40-man roster with plenty of pitchers who have minor league options. The Orioles have that among the pitchers at this point, with only the three established starters and Mike Wright, another rotation candidate, out of minor league options. They also need to decide whether it's best for a player's development, or whether it's in the interest of their long-term goals of drafting high and building a player development empire to employ a strategy geared toward squeezing wins out of the major league roster.

While the cloudiness around the subject makes it seem like it's a legitimate consideration, Hyde said it might not be a situation where it's a fit early in the season. Each of the first two weeks of the season feature mid-series Friday days off, meaning the Orioles can be flexible with their rotation and maybe keep a starter in the bullpen for the first few games to see if he's needed there.

They'll also have a stock of starting pitchers ticketed for both Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk who they plan to have healthy and stretched out come late March into early April. So, the idea of planning to cobble together 27 outs unconventionally when they've spent a whole spring working toward more conventional goals would be a bit contradictory.

"It might fit a little bit less because you have guys built up," Hyde said. "We have guys that are built up to start, so now it's determining whether we're going to do that or not."

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