Circumstances and a willingness to try something new, at least to their organization, have led the Orioles to introduce the “opener” to their rotation in the second game of the 2019 season.
Manager Brandon Hyde provided some clarity to his rotation during today’s workout at chilly Camden Yards, including how Dylan Bundy will start Sunday afternoon’s series finale.
David Hess is lined up to start Monday night against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Cashner could return Tuesday on normal rest.
Karns was stretched out to two innings in his finale spring appearance on Sunday, his longest outing after the Orioles adjusted his schedule to accommodate an arm that didn’t bounce back quickly following his debut. He was moved to the bullpen and shortened to one inning.
“Right now, things are kind of a little different with some of the injuries at the end of camp, but that’s what we’re here for. Next guy steps up and we’re going to see how much I can give out in Game 2 and just kind of go from there,” said Karns, who missed the 2018 season with an elbow injury.
“Pretty excited going in there and following Cashner after Game 1. But I want to get out there, same focus as any other start. Try to keep the team in the game as long as possible and help my team win.”
The Orioles signed Karns to a major league deal on Feb. 7, guaranteeing $800,000 with a possible $200,000 in incentives based on innings pitched. They viewed him first as a starter, but knew he could shift to the bullpen.
Hyde and executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias have been receptive to using an opener after teams like the Rays, Athletics and Brewers found success with it last summer. It became more of a necessity after Alex Cobb sustained a groin injury that forced him out of the opening day start and onto the 10-day injured list.
The pitchers who follow Karns haven’t been revealed. Hyde just confirmed Karns and said, “Then we’ll go from there.”
The opener figured to be used at the back end of the rotation, but Hyde wants to implement it for the second game due to an off-day that freshens up the bullpen. Hyde said it had nothing to do with wanting to separate Cashner and Bundy.
“Going with the opener ideally, it’s around the off-day. Our bullpen will be rested,” Hyde said.
“We’re trying it out. It’s new for us, new for me. To be able to have your bullpen rested before that game is key, so that’s why we picked it that way.”
“It’s still new to the game,” Karns said. “I know I’m not stretched out, so it’s not going to be a full anticipated start, but it’s something that people are starting to find value in. If that’s the role I find myself in, I find myself in it, but at the end of the day, just coming in, throwing competitive innings and trying to help the ballclub win is my ultimate goal.
“I can go as long as they want, but at the end of the day, it’s the big picture. What am I going to be able to bounce back from? We put in some work toward the end of game, got to two innings, but I’m going to go out there and as long as I’m effective, I think we’re going to keep rolling me out there and pass the baton to the next guy.”
Being on such a short leash doesn’t truncate the responsibility handed to Karns, whose last major league outing was May 19, 2017.
“No, I think it’s the same amount of pressure anytime you take the mound,” he said. “You want to go out there and give it your all. You can go out there one inning and you can really screw up a game, especially in the front half. I want to go out there and try to keep my position where my team’s in the ballgame and be effective.
“I’m not going to get caught up in how many innings and all that. I just want to go out there and impact the game in a positive way and just support my teammates and see where it takes us from there. We’re a little banged up, but I think we’re going to get everyone back pretty quickly. It’s just a funny way to start the season.”
Hess and other pitchers on the staff were braced for the opener. It was just a matter of when the Orioles unleashed it. Candidates were plentiful, including left-hander Paul Fry, who started Sunday in Clearwater and lasted 1 2/3 innings.
“I think there’s a lot of testing potential right now,” Hess said. “We have a lot of guys that have a lot of versatility and the things they bring to the table, whether it’s pitching, defense, hitting, whatever that looks like. But I think that’s something we saw last year and there was some success with it and so to kind of hop on board and test that out, that’s the decision they made and I think that’s something that, if it’s something good, maybe we’ll keep rolling with it. Who knows? But just to see the openness to new things shows a lot about the staff and where they’re at with everything.”
Cobb stayed back in Sarasota while the Orioles broke camp, though he could join the club in New York. He played catch Monday and didn’t experience any discomfort or “fatigue,” as he called it, in the groin area, but Elias and Hyde weren’t going to risk a serious injury.
“We kind of came to an agreement that it was the right thing to do,” Hyde said. “It’s early. We want 30-plus starts out of him. We don’t want to lose time with him.
“Like I said before, the season opener is just a date on the calendar, even though it’s a really special day and it means a lot. It’s one of 162 and we want Alex for the majority of the season and not lose him because we pushed him early and made a start that he probably wasn’t ready to make.”
Cobb will be rewarded for his patience by coming off the IL and starting the home opener on April 4.
“That was kind of how we brought it to him a little bit,” Hyde said. “Like, what’s the right thing to do? And in our eyes and in his eyes also was to give him a little bit of time to make sure that he’s 100 percent and then it kind of lines up perfectly for the home opener. So we’re excited that he’s going to be able to do that.”
Hyde noticed that giving Cashner his second career opening day assignment, the last being in 2014 in San Diego, brought conflicting emotions for the veteran. The joy of taking the mound for the first game running head-on into sympathy for Cobb, who so badly wanted the honor.
“I think you hit it on the head. Excited to do it, but felt bad for Alex,” Hyde said.
“They’re close friends. I know everybody was looking forward to Alex making the opening day start and it’s just an unfortunate circumstance. But we’re happy to give the ball to Andrew and the rotation changes a little bit, but we have all the confidence in Cash to go out and give us a good start opening day.”
“It’s definitely a bummer for him,” Cashner said. “I know he was looking forward to it.”
Hyde made it through his first camp as a major league manager and now comes opening day. It really hit him this afternoon as he surveyed the scene at Camden Yards - players lined up to stretch and play catch, run through infield drills and take their turns in the batting cage.
“It’s a good feeling. This is fantastic,” he said.
“Our guys are more than ready and coaching staff is ready. We just had a great 50 days or so in Sarasota and now we’re ready to play some real games, so it’s an exciting time.”
The realness provided some warmth on a cold day.
“Obviously this stadium is so beautiful and we’re fortunate to be in the big leagues, but also here,” Hyde said. “It’s a great feeling to have a group of guys that you care about and are ready to spend the next six months with, and there’s no better place to be.”
Elias finally made it back to Camden Yards.
“It’s nice,” he said. “I’m not sure that I’ve seen a real live game at Camden Yards since I was a kid and to be here for a home opener and actually be a part of it, it’s going to be great. We’ll all have a lot of family here. And while we’re sorry that Alex Cobb is missing the season opener at Yankee Stadium, I think it’s kind of fun for us that he’s going to start the home opener instead, which is the next best thing.”
Asked for his pitch to fans who must remain patient through the rebuild, Elias said, “We’re doing things the right way, the way that they need to be done. The end goal here is not to cobble together a one-year wonder, .500 club that could be a disaster if it doesn’t work right and we spent a few years digging out of that hole. We want to put together a perennial contending organization. And we’re initiating that process.
“We know how to do it. We’re going about it the way you need to go about it. In the meantime, there’s going to be young talent on the field. They’re going to be hustling, playing hard. They’re going to be ‘tools,’ as we say in the scouting world, big talent out there that we can watch and we’re in a wonderful baseball environment here in Camden Yards and here in the Inner Harbor.
“You know, you come to appreciate the sport and see some good baseball and watch this team grow.”
Improving on 115 losses would be a nice reward.
“We’re going to try to win every night with the guys we have out there, but we’ve got to have a broad organizational strategy and right now our organizational strategy is to elevate the level of talent up and down the organization,” Elias said. “But right behind that is winning ballgames.”