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Giants haven't used opener much, but can in 2021 if they want

NBC Sports
Caleb Baragar

Farhan Zaidi tossed some red meat to the local media during his first winter meetings as Giants president of baseball operations, mentioning that the organization would start to embrace the opener strategy. 

The Giants ended up using an opener just once the next year. But when Zaidi picked Gabe Kapler to be his manager last offseason, it seemed they were poised to join organizations -- including the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays -- who approach a rotation from a different angle. In need of a pitching coach, Kapler picked Andrew Bailey, previously a coach for the Los Angeles Angels, who have embraced openers more than most. 

For all the connections, though, the Giants actually played it pretty straight in 2020. There's some ambiguity because there were nights when the starting pitcher, most notably Trevor Cahill post-injury, wasn't on a high pitch count, but over 60 games there were really just two times when you could say Kapler truly planned around an opener. 

On the second night of the season, lefty Tyler Anderson pitched 1 2/3 innings before handing the ball over to Rico Garcia for one out and Kevin Gausman for four innings. That was the only relief appearance Gausman made until the final day of the regular season, but it didn't work out. The Giants got blown out 9-1 by the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

A more traditional opener was used on Sept. 23, when the Giants were fighting for a playoff spot with a rotation that really had just two dependable options. Logan Webb had struggled, so Kapler had rookie lefty Caleb Baragar start against the Colorado Rockies. He threw a shutout inning before handing it over to Webb, who had one of his best performances of the season, allowing two runs over 5 1/3 in a 7-2 win. 

 

Baragar ended up being the only full-time reliever to start over 60 games, which is probably not what most observers would have predicted before the season. As he looked toward the future recently, Kapler said it's hard to predict how the Giants might use the strategy. 

"We'll examine it on a case-by-case basis," he said. "We've got some options to open games, Baragar who has a history of starting and (Matt) Wisler who has done it in the past. I don't know if he loves it -- we may have to keep digging with him -- but (Tyler) Rogers is a really good option to open games and get lefties and righties out and go multiple innings if necessary."

The Giants still hope to add at least one veteran to the rotation before spring training, and if they do so, they won't really have holes that need to be filled by openers. Gausman and Webb would join Johnny Cueto, Anthony DeSclafani and the next newcomer in the rotation, with Tyler Beede back sometime early in the year. But this bullpen is shaping up to provide options if Kapler wants to mix it up, perhaps by letting Webb come out for a "bulk innings" relief appearance again or mixing Beede in slowly. 

This current bullpen is filled with guys who were starters in the minors, including Baragar, a good option to come in before a right-hander. From the right side, Rogers can face lefties and righties and go multiple innings. Wisler, signed earlier this offseason, might be the best choice of the group. He started four games for the Twins last year, striking out 11 in 7 2/3 scoreless innings. In Wisler's four appearances as an opener, he went two innings on three occasions. Like Baragar and Rogers, he could provide some length. 

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"One thing as it relates to opener strategy that I really appreciate is a guy who you don't have to limit to three or four batters, just in case he just looks so good that you want to extend him to six, seven or eight batters," Kapler said. "Those are the kind of guys that I think could do that."

The Giants will continue to look for starting help, knowing that they'll need to go at least seven or eight deep in the rotation to plan for a season. But if the time comes when they have to turn to a different strategy for certain games, they should be well prepared to embrace one that's been talked about often over the past couple of seasons. 

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