With injuries and a general lack of good starting options, the Tampa Bay Rays have used bullpen games all season. They’ve pushed that to a new level over the last two weekends, with reliever Sergio Romo slated to make his fourth start on Sunday as an “opener” (h/t to MLB Network’s Brian Kenny).

Ryan Yarbrough’s last two outings have come following Romo’s starts. While they won’t go into the books as starts for him, the left-hander has pitched at least 6.1 innings both times (13.1 innings total) with 12 strikeouts and just one walk. Going back a little further, he has allowed one run or less in four of his last five outings (two starts-28.1 innings), while going at least five innings in each, with a 2.54 ERA and a 27:4 K/BB ratio over that span.

Yarbrough had not pitched in the big leagues before this year. But his K/9, BB/9, FIP and strand rate through 12 appearances thus far match up almost perfectly with what he posted in the those categories in the minors. So there’s some sustainability here, and Rays manager Kevin Cash has deployed Yarbrough perfectly in the move toward using an “opener” on a regular basis.

Being credited with a start (and a bunch of starts) is aesthetically pleasing for pitchers, and by connection their agents. But for teams looking for winning edges at the margins others won’t consider, like the lower-budget Rays, keeping pitchers from going through an opponent’s lineup three full times, but still getting the most out of them, is not about appearances. Yarbrough has been the poster boy for the success of the strategy, albeit only through two outings, using his average of 98.5 pitches in those outings to go deep into games as a typical starter ideally would more often than not.

Fantasy owners should not worry about winning the aesthetic battle either, particularly when it comes to finding useful pitchers. Yarbrough looks like a perfect guy to fill a relief pitcher spot in a mixed league lineup, with an eye on any season-long innings limit of course, and AL-only league owners can consider using him in a starting pitcher spot since he is eligible there.

The Rays are doing something unconventional with how they’re deploying pitchers. But fantasy owners who are willing to similarly think outside the box can get value out of Yarbrough right now.

Ryan Yarbrough: ESPN Ownership: 8.2%, Yahoo Ownership: 6%

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