Braves won’t rule out using ‘opener’ this season

Braves manager Brian Snitker take questions during his press conference at spring training at the Atlanta Braves CoolToday Park on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in North Port.  Curtis Compton

Braves manager Brian Snitker take questions during his press conference at spring training at the Atlanta Braves CoolToday Park on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in North Port. Curtis Compton

Two years ago, the thrifty Rays began using the “opener” concept that stirred widespread reaction across the baseball map. In 2020 – a season that will define unconventional – the Braves might join the list of clubs who’ve adopted it, too.

Speaking with reporters Monday, Braves manager Brian Snitker was asked if the team would consider the unique strategy, which involves starting a reliever to get the first outs of a game before bringing in the starting pitcher (or long reliever) who normally would’ve begun the game.

» MORE: 2020 Braves season TV schedule

Snitker wouldn’t rule it out, depending on the circumstances.

“We have (talked about it),” he said. “Just depending on where we’re at in certain situations. You get a positive (COVID-19 test) here or there. We talked about it the other day. That’s an option, especially with 20 (games) in a row (to start the season). We could use the opener depending on where we’re at. I don’t know if that’s something we’d plan ahead, but I think we’ll be open to it depending on how we get there. That’s definitely a possibility.”

Several teams have used the opener since the Rays, including the A’s, Yankees and Angels. When asked about the idea last season, Snitker never gave any indication the team had seriously considered the strategy. Over their 97-win season, the Braves used eleven starting pitchers, with five of them exceeding 18 starts.

In 2020, perhaps the Braves embrace the eccentric. The team already plans to piggyback pitchers earlier in the season, a fortune made possible by its vast pitching depth. Given the increased importance of every contest across a 60-game slate, perhaps one ample use of that depth could be starting a reliever.

The Braves already have seen how quickly a dent can be made in their plans. They currently are down two veteran starters in Felix Hernandez, who decided against playing this season, and Cole Hamels, who might not be ready by opening day.

Touki Toussaint, one of the oft-referenced young pitchers, tested positive for COVID-19 on July 3 and hasn't rejoined the team yet. All-Star reliever Will Smith likewise has been sidelined. Both are asymptomatic.

In the 10 days since camp opened, the Braves have dealt with those absences. They’re preparing to face more losses as the season progresses, and those anticipated random misfortunes mean considering every option – including the opener.

“We’re already seeing how we have to use (our depth),” especially with pitching,” Snitker said. “We said we have depth, and we’re needing all of it already. We haven’t even started, and we’re tapping into the depth. It’s good that we have it, and it’s going to be a challenging part of the rest of the summer.”

Other notes from Monday:

» The four Braves who tested positive for COVID-19 (Freddie Freeman, Pete Kozma, Smith and Toussaint) still are going through MLB's protocol. Snitker didn't say whether any had been doing baseball activities while away from the team.

“It’s beyond how they feel and all that,” Snitker said. “Until they’re cleared, they’re away. When they get here, I’ll know they’ll have passed all the protocols and they’ll be ready to go. Until then, there’s not a whole lot to say about it.”

» On Hamels, Snitker said he's feeling better after triceps tendinitis prevented him from throwing over the weekend. "It's going to be a slow process for him," Snitker said, while adding he still hasn't necessarily ruled him out for the start of the regular season.

» The Braves have discussed using generated crowd noise during some of their intrasquad games "just to see what it's like." Multiple franchises plan to use fake crowd noise during regular-season games, but Snitker isn't sure yet if the Braves will be among them.