Rays open spring training on the defensive about .... openers

Rays pitchers, execs feel good about what they’re doing despite criticisms from Jeff Samardzija
Rays pitcher Ryne Stanek was taking aim at a critic of the opener strategy as well on Tuesday. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]
Rays pitcher Ryne Stanek was taking aim at a critic of the opener strategy as well on Tuesday. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]
Published Feb. 12, 2019|Updated Feb. 12, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE — It was only fitting that as the Rays prepped for today’s opening of spring training they were forced to again defend introducing and continuing to use the opener.

The latest salvo at the innovative pitching strategy they unveiled last May came from Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who claimed the pitchers they used in the non-traditional roles should have refused, or even revolted, at such duty.

“Where did the pride go from the players’ standpoint?” Samardzija told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Where were the guys in Tampa Bay saying, ‘No, no, no, I’m good enough to go seven innings and get all these outs. You don’t need to do this.’ Everybody’s just accepting what they’re told.

“As players, we need a little more anarchy. We need a little bit more self-moxie, a little more pride about your career and about the way you’re being treated.’’

There’s a couple problems with that line of thinking.

One, is that the Rays pitchers serving in these roles, such as Ryan Yarbrough, who worked behind an opener the most, realize that doing so allowed them to pitch in the big leagues when they otherwise might not, and, in most of their cases, to have success doing so.

“It was an opportunity for me to kind of get your feet wet a little bit and really get some confidence to have some success in the big leagues,’’ Yarbrough said Tuesday.

The other is that it worked for the Rays, given the pitchers they had on their staff and the situation they were in.

Their 32-23 record in the 55 games when they had a reliever start and try to get the first three-six outs was telling. More so, their 3.50 ERA that was second best in the American League after the May 19 launch. Ultimately, they’re pretty sure that it was because of rather than in spite of the opener they won 90 games. And that they’re going to do use it again this season, likely twice in a five-game span.

“We certainly value our players quite a bit, and I think looking at what some of these guys did, whether it was the opener or the bulk guy that followed, they all had pretty special seasons,’’ manager Kevin Cash said. “They bought in, and we’re going to need that again. But I also think they really valued and cherished winning games, and that helped us win games."

Samardzija is far from alone in criticizing the Rays’ plan, nor is he the first active player to do so. At least year’s All-Star Game, Zack Greinke said it was “a sideshow” and “really bad for baseball,’’ specifically because working in those roles would eventually limit the pitchers’ opportunity to get paid. Other complaints are that the Rays are stunting the pitchers’ development and/or endangering their health.

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But Samardzija may have been the first to rip the Rays pitchers for going along with the plan, which seemed a little aggressive.

And that’s besides whatever irony you attach to the complainer being a guy making a guaranteed $90 million over five years and thus far hardly earning it with a 22-31, 4.33 record. And who had to work in relief his first four seasons in the majors before getting the chance to go back to being a starter, as he was in the minors.

Obviously not all the Rays pitchers used in the opener or bulk-inning roles love it. Some would rather be traditional starters or closers than mess with this stuff, even though they don’t say so publicly.

But they are also aware enough to realize that pitching in these roles in the majors is better than doing what they want in the minors. (And let’s not absolve the Rays of being savvy enough to realize young guys on the bubble were the perfect candidates given their lack of leverage.)

“You can stand up for yourself, but it’s like, would you rather stand up for yourself and be in Triple-A, or would you rather do your job and be in the big leagues?’’ said Ryne Stanek, who was the primary opener. “If I had $90 million and a job consistently set you’d feel a little bit more comfortable saying something. I’m trying to earn a spot every single day.’’

Rays brass prefer to stay above the noise, concerned little about the complaints, curious to see the number of copy catting teams, confident they have the trust of and buy-in from their players, and certain they are doing what’s best.

“Our motives are to win games and to put our players in the best position we believe possible to help us accomplish that, being mindful of their physical well-being and also their own development,'' GM Erik Neander said, “That will continue to be our guide. … And usually at the end of the day if that leads to winning games, everybody is happy.’’

Well, not everybody.

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Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.