The Pirates entered the 2019 season boasting one of the strongest rotations on paper in Major League Baseball: Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, Chris Archer and Jordan Lyles. And while those five came blazing out of the gates, putting up gaudy numbers just as many anticipated, the rotation soon faltered, mainly due to injuries and in part due to inconsistent performances.
In mid-May, this reached a tipping point, with Taillon, Archer and Williams all ending up on the IL. The Pirates had to get creative, and they did, opting to use an "opener" with Montana DuRapau on May 18 against the Padres in San Diego. In theory, DuRapau, a relief pitcher called up from Triple-A Indianapolis for the occasion, would start the game, log some quick outs, then hand things off to the Pirates' bullpen to tag-team the rest of the game.
It actually worked ... once.
In DuRapau's first go as an opener, he pitched two shutout innings before turning the ball over to now-starter Steven Brault, and relievers Michael Feliz, Kyle Crick, Francisco Liriano and Geoff Hartlieb. The Pirates won, 7-2, and it appeared a viable strategy had been discovered to get them through the devastation caused by the injuries.
The Pirates went back to DuRapau as the opener a few nights later, this time at home vs. the Rockies, and he promptly got destroyed. Dejan Kovacevic put it best in his postgame report. In that game, DuRapau didn't finish the first inning before being yanked.
Thinking maybe DuRapau was the issue and not the concept itself, the team turned to Feliz for a third stab at it on May 24 against the Dodgers. Nope. Not even close. Feliz retired just one of the six batters he faced that evening, coughing up a 5-0 lead before mercifully being yanked.
So all this said, the Pirates have to be done with the idea, right? Sure, Taillon is still on the IL and Lyles is rehabbing, but with Brault finding his groove — for real — as a starter, this can't be necessary.
"The opener concept still has value," Pirates GM Neal Huntington was telling reporters at PNC Park. "It’s just a matter of what the matchups are, how your staff is aligned, how your bullpen’s aligned. The opener, theoretically, you feel better about him getting those first three to five hitters out than you do about your guy who would start that game. So conceptually the opener has value.
"It is an option for us, although I think as we look forward, we’ll probably go more of a true starter and get the depth that we can out of him and then build the bullpen in from behind him and try to win a ballgame.”
That said, Huntington circled back, pointing to the team's much-improved depth now vs. in mid-May. That, along with Brault's steady contributions as a starter, lessen the chances of the club going back to an opener any time soon.
"It's worked [the opener] really well in other places, say Tampa for example with Ryne Stanek. Ryne Stanek's a really good reliever and would be a good seventh or eighth-inning reliever in old-school terms; and as a result, he's pitching some leverage roles. And that's the theory behind it. It isn't just starter-reliever, it's to start the guy that you feel better about getting those first three, four, five outs. And that's where Steven Brault has earned that opportunity.
"Now, we also have some relievers that are starting to turn a corner. Clay Holmes is throwing well. Richard Rodriguez is throwing well. So it could theoretically work again, but our hope is we have five starters that we feel just as good about getting those first six innings."
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