Blue Jays trying to stay away from opener strategy

Toronto Blue Jays General Manger Ross Atkins spoke to media at the MLB Wineter Meetings following the release of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.

LAS VEGAS – Charlie Montoyo was a part of things when the Tampa Bay Rays first used an opener last May 19, taking part in the decision to forgo baseball’s ingrained doctrine on pitcher usage and use their closer to start, rather than finish a game.

Looking to neutralize the right-handed bats atop the Los Angeles Angels’ lineup one time before lefty Ryan Yarbrough took over, Sergio Romo took the ball in the first inning before handing it off to his teammate. Romo started again the next day and before long it was a regular tactic for the ever-creative Rays, one copied by others when they struggled to backfill rotation needs.

“When you think about it, it was the right-handers,” Montoyo recalled Tuesday afternoon. “Romo has been a closer and it worked out great. Yarbrough was a lefty, he had to face those (righty) guys twice in the lineup instead of three times. We know the average goes up the third time (through the order for a pitcher) like 70-something points up. That’s how that came out. …

“I saw it work.”

Now, that doesn’t mean the pitching-poor Blue Jays intend to go down a similar path to cover their innings in 2019, even as they explore the possibility of trading Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, the only two pillars they have in the rotation right now.

Finding starters to slot in behind Ryan Borucki and in-house candidates like prospects Thomas Pannone, Sean Reid-Foley, Trent Thornton and Sam Gaviglio has been a focal point for GM Ross Atkins, who may be inching toward a winter meetings addition at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

Given that the Blue Jays will have plenty of optionable pitchers on the roster, a key ingredient to make the opener work, using an opener for one slot in the rotation might ease the burden of trying to acquire so much starting pitching.

But, at least for now, that’s not their intention.

“We’re planning on filling the rotation with guys that are starters and looking to build a pitching staff more along the lines of what fans are accustomed to,” said Atkins. “Having said that, the season could start, we could have one injury and that could completely change. Performance could completely change that. But we’re going to look to acquire as many starting pitchers as we can to build from that area of depth.”

Atkins said the Blue Jays feel like they “have a great starting point” to build a rotation but that only holds up if Stroman and Sanchez remain on the roster. Trading either isn’t going to be easy, as the Blue Jays are said by rival executives to be asking high on the right-handers.

On Monday, Atkins suggested teams are starting to value Stroman and Sanchez more similarly to the way they are, but obviously haven’t arrived at a sweet spot with potential suitors.

The Seattle Mariners’ recent trade of James Paxton to the New York Yankees for top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson and Dom Thompson-Williams offers an interesting measuring stick on how to value the Blue Jays’ duo.

The Canadian lefty, like Stroman and Sanchez, has two years of club control remaining and while he’s coming off a much better 2018, over the past three seasons he’s produced a WAR of 7.8 per Baseball Reference, while Stroman is at 7.4 and Sanchez is at 5.9.

The Blue Jays, presumably, would argue their guys are in a similar range to Paxton given their ceilings, while other teams could certainly argue for a lesser comp given their most recent performances.

Minus that kind of established ability in the rotation, the Blue Jays will probably have to end up getting creative in how they get 27 outs a night, and Atkins has on a handful of occasions pointed to Thornton, the hard-throwing righty acquired from Houston for Aledmys Diaz, as someone who could be employed in a variety of roles.

To that end, Atkins also stated a desire to add pitchers “that are versatile and that could start/relieve and could potentially be openers. That creates a lot of different opportunities in the minor leagues, as well, to think about building a pitching staff that creatively.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

The Blue Jays haven’t talked to him about it, but Atkins suggested that someone like Ryan Tepera is the type of pitcher who could fit as a potential opener.

Still, in an ideal world, the Blue Jays will employ five starters because “the plusses of a traditional model is that if you execute it, there’s a lot more consistency.”

“Guys who can get 27 outs, if you have them, you are acquiring the best talent,” Atkins added. “That’s the plus. If you acquire 5-8 starters that can pitch into the seventh inning, you’re doing better than 80 per cent of teams.”

The Blue Jays, in all likelihood, won’t be among the elite 20 per cent in that regard next year, which makes, at some point, the opener a possibility that will be on the table.

“If we had the right pitching to do it, it’s going to work,” said Montoyo. “If you don’t have the right pitching – at the end of the day you’ve got to have good pitching. You can use the opener all you want, but if we have guys throwing 98 to open the game, that works pretty good.”

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