Tigers' Ron Gardenhire open to using 'opener' strategy, taps Greiner No. 1 catcher

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Las Vegas — If you were told Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, a proud, perhaps founding member of the so-called old school, was in favor of abolishing defensive shifts, you hardly be surprised, right?

He absolutely is in favor of abolishing shifts.

Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire says he's open about using the "bullpennig" concept.

“Yeah, I like two guys on each side (of second base),” he said Wednesday during his media session during the Winter Meetings. “I've always said that. At least keep them all in the dirt rather than in the grass. I am old school in that respect.

“The shifting and everything is all good and fine, but I think Abner (Doubleday), when he set this game up a long time ago, he set it up the right way.”

But, what if you were told Gardenhire is seriously contemplating using an “opener” some this season. You’d be shocked, right, after you got done laughing.

Guess what? He truly is contemplating it.

“I've watched it, and I don't have a problem with it,” he said. “I saw the Twins do it to us seemed like every game. They got through it. Tampa Bay made it an art form. So, if it's part of the game, it's part of the game. If you have five dominant starters, that probably makes a difference.

“But if you don't feel you can do that and compete, then it makes sense to try something different.”

The Rays last season pioneered the use of an opener, essentially using a relief pitcher to start a game, let them pitch an inning, or maybe one time through the order, and then bring in what would be considered the starting pitcher to work into the later innings.

The strategy was devised, in part, to keep the starting pitchers from having to face the opposing hitters a third time in a game. Statistics show unequivocally that hitters have much greater success the third and fourth time they see the same pitcher in a game.

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“I think we’re going to see it happen,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said, when asked if bullpening was a fad or a trend. “I know we're going to do it. But every club kind of values their rotation or their pitching staffs differently. I think it's fair to say, like if you look at what the Astros, Red Sox, teams that had a very veteran group of pitchers one through five, that might be a little challenging to do that with the bullpen.

“But it was kind of the perfect storm for us in the fact that we had so many young guys coming up transitioning, and I think ultimately it helped both. It helped the guys that left (Triple A) as starters, graduated to the big leagues, and it also helped some of those short-reliever starts.”

The Tigers have signed two veteran starting pitchers this off-season — Matt Moore and Tyson Ross — both coming off subpar seasons. They also have veterans Jordan Zimmermann and Michael Fulmer coming to camp after offseason surgeries. Last season, the Tigers didn’t have a starting pitcher who averaged more than 5.5 innings per start (Fulmer and Matthew Boyd).

There is no true ace.

“There's nothing wrong with trying different things,” Gardenhire said. “I kind of enjoyed watching them do it. It irritated me, as old-school manager, trying to figure out how to write a lineup out with a guy that pitched maybe two innings, maybe one inning. But it's an advantage for them because we didn't know how far he was going to go or how long he was going to go to set a right-handed lineup, left-handed lineup.

“Made you think a little bit, which is entertaining. That's what you want in baseball.”

Gardenhire said he thought lefty Francisco Liriano, now a free agent, would be a good candidate to be an opener. Moore, who is coming off a rough year and finished the season working out of the bullpen, would also fit the role.

The question the Tigers will have is, do they have enough bullpen depth, on the big-league roster and at Triple-A Toledo, to facilitate that strategy. To make it work, two or three starters would have to be able to consistently provide six-plus innings an outing.

“As we went along last year, we were able to get some of our starters into the second half of the game, and that's important,” Gardenhire said. “And then you can set up a bullpen and run a good bullpen. But if your starters don't get you past three or four innings, you're going to kill them.”

Gardenhire said this would all get worked out in spring training.

“It's just something out there that everybody's doing it, and I'm not afraid to try it if that's the way it would have to be,” he said. “I don't think we've told anybody you're definitely this starter or that starter. We've told them all when we've signed them that you're going to get an opportunity to be a starter, and it's up to them on how they do in spring training and how they go about their business.

“No matter how we look at it, we've got to find five starters. We've got a good start going here by picking up some pretty good pitchers.”

Greiner's shot

Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire says  Grayson Greiner (right) will be the team's No. 1 catcher.

The assumption, when the Tigers let catcher James McCann go, was that Grayson Greiner and John Hicks would share the catching duties this season.

Not so.

“Greiner is going to be our starter,” Gardenhire said. “Greiner should get that job. That's what we're working on. He's going to be our starter. Hicksy will be a backup, maybe play some at first base. But it depends on how they get through spring training.”

General manager Al Avila said the Tigers were still searching for another veteran catcher. They signed Bobby Wilson to a minor-league contract, as the veteran insurance policy.  

“But our thoughts are Greiner's going to be the guy,” Gardenhire said. “We think he can handle it. He did some pretty good things last year. It's his turn.”

Greiner hit .219 with a .328 on-base percentage in 30 games last season.

“He'll be fine,” Gardenhire said. “I mean, he learned a lot and he talked. He was open about it. And that's all you can ask for a catcher. You'll learn that way, if you don't say anything and don't tell us you're struggling here or there, but he was open to us. That's all that matters.”

Around the horn

Gardnehire also said Shane Greene will enter camp as the closer. “Unless he’s traded,” he joked.

… Reports out of San Francisco indicated the Giants had shown some interest in reliever Blaine Hardy.


Twitter: @cmccosky