Someone With the Cubs Finally Said the Word "Opener" ... Just in Time for Everything to Change

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Someone With the Cubs Finally Said the Word “Opener” … Just in Time for Everything to Change

Chicago Cubs

For all the references to the Tampa Bay Rays (among other clubs) in how the Chicago Cubs have been reworking their pitching staff the last few years, there’s one big Rays thing the Cubs have never deployed: the Opener.

In short, the Opener is a relief pitcher who “starts” a ballgame, but who is expected to go only an inning or two before giving way to a “bulk” pitcher who goes the next three or four innings. The setup is great for the Rays, because it means they don’t have to pay for another starting pitcher. But it would be compelling to other clubs that want to optimize the performance of multiple arms that might not quite be true starting pitchers. Most teams WANT a rotation full of clear six+ inning starting pitchers, but not every club is in a position to actually have that. Current Cubs included.

Still, the Cubs have never really contemplated an Opener the last few years, even as the starting rotation has been in need. Until now? Maybe? Kinda? Did we see it last night with Mark Leiter Jr. and Keegan Thompson?

“[He] gave us two good innings. He’s been pretty good for the first two, three innings of his outings. Towards the third inning is where things just start to tick down,” Cubs manager David Ross said of Leiter. “I think you read and react, but I was expecting six to nine outs from him, trying to get six to nine outs from him …. Keegan, the value that he brings in – you know, it’s almost kind of like a semi-opener type presentation we had today, and it worked out really nicely.”

It *IS* almost kind of like a semi-opener type presentation! And it is almost like that’s the clear best way to use a guy like Leiter, who can get big league bats out with his mix of stuff if he’s using it all immediately and hitters see him only once that day. An Opener! The Cubs see the value in Leiter as an Opener, with someone like Thompson there to bulk out behind him! Finally! They are in the game!

So many exclamation points! I must be going somewhere semi-sarcastic with this!

OK, on the one hand, I love the acknowledgement and the deployment of a guy like Leiter. Clearly, it can work, and it was high time the Cubs recognized it with one of their fringier arms. So no sarcasm there.

But on the other hand, everything is going to change on Monday, May 2, and then again on Monday, May 30. Specifically, teams can carry no more than 14 pitchers on the roster as of Monday, and no more than 13 pitchers on the roster as of May 30.

Having a guy like Leiter in the rotation to go two innings once every five games is perfectly tenable – advisable, even! – when you’ve got nine or ten relievers available behind him. But when the bullpen, by rule, is shrunk down to a maximum of eight pitchers? It becomes virtually impossible to use an Opener in that way. He’d have to be available to give you more.

I still think a lot of folks around baseball – the observers, not the teams – have been sleeping on how major the 13-pitcher maximum change is, and how it could fundamentally re-shape the way teams deploy their pitchers … which, of course, is the point. From MLB’s perspective, it’s not the most entertaining version of the product to have starting pitchers so thoroughly marginalized, and to have four to six pitching changes every night. So by limiting teams to eight-man bullpens – and by changing the length of an option stay in the minors from 10 games to 15 games – the importance of a starting pitcher going deeper into games is going to increase significantly.

That is, long-term, going to be a good thing for the sport, but it’s going to create a lot of challenges in the short-term, especially for a team like the Cubs. The Leiter situation encapsulates it very well, but it’s not as if the rest of the rotation has been going deep every night.

So, even if the Cubs have finally found the right mix of guys to deploy an Opener strategy, it’s kinda too late? Again, unless you can figure out how to make it more of a pseudo Opener situation (or “almost kind of like a semi-opener type presentation,” as David Ross put it). Maybe that is the guy “opens” more than one game a week, or maybe it’s where he consistently goes three innings (but then is he really an “Opener”?), or maybe it’s where you have a four-man rotation full of piggybacks (and both halves of the piggyback can consistently go four innings), or some other thing that I can’t even imagine yet and the Rays will probably figure out by next year.

This 13-pitcher rule change is a topic that is going to require a LOT more attention in the coming weeks and months and seasons. This was a very intentional, widely-discussed rule change idea during the 2019 season, when reliever usage was coming to a head. The rule was passed for the 2020 season, but then the pandemic happened, and the rule got punted for both 2020 and 2021. Then you had the lockout push it back even further, plus we’ve had CONSTANT talk of OTHER big rules changes. So it’s not hard to understand why it has been discussed so little. But don’t confuse that for this being a small change. It’s huge, and its impact goes far beyond the Leiter-Thompson-type discussion offered here. (To that end, more soon!)

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.