According to Jeff Passan of ESPN, the Seattle Mariners and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray have agreed to a five-year contract worth $115 million that has a player opt out after the third season. By signing Ray, the Mariners have accomplished one of several key offseason priorities – raise the ceiling of the starting rotation.
There’s much to like about Ray, who instantly becomes Seattle’s best starter. With the Toronto Blue Jays this year, the left-hander was top-five among AL starters with 130-plus innings in ERA, WHIP, AVG, and xwOBA. Only free agent Carlos Rodón (34.6%) and Gerrit Cole of the Yankees (33.5%) had higher strikeout rates than the newest Mariner.
Another strength of Ray’s in 2021 was a knack for remaining in games, which explains his AL-best 193.1 innings pitched. The Tennessean also led the junior circuit with 23 quality starts with the Blue Jays going 16-7 in those contests and Ray posting a 2.05 ERA.
Another factor about Ray that Mariners fans may embrace is the possibility that pitching in T-Mobile Park aids the 30-year-old in a way not normally considered, except by nerds like me. Ray’s 44.2% fly ball rate was fourth highest in the majors this year and we all know that balls hit into the air don’t necessarily travel as far in Seattle as other places.
Shortest Average Fly Ball Distance 2019-21 (feet)
T-Mobile Park (Mariners) – 314
loanDepot park (Marlins) – 314
Oracle Park (Giants) – 314
Citi Field (Mets) – 315
Dodger Stadium (Dodgers) – 316
Oakland Coliseum (Athletics) – 316
Citizens Bank Park (Phillies) – 316
As we recently discussed, Seattle pitchers appeared to gain an advantage from the T-Mobile effect on fly balls in 2021. Conversely, the staff delivered somewhat pedestrian results on fly balls when playing on the road.
While there’s a tremendous amount of good news surrounding the newest addition to Seattle’s rotation, we should discuss potential concerns with Ray and his future with the Mariners. After all, the team just committed five years and $115 million to the eight-year veteran. First up, Ray’s susceptibility to the long ball.
In 2021, Ray surrendered 33 home runs, which was fourth most in the majors. Not only that, he’s allowed 142 homers since the beginning of the 2016 season. No pitcher coughed up more during that period. Hopefully, the T-Mobile effect we just discussed helps reduce the number of dingers Ray allows next year.
Even if pitching in Seattle helps with Ray’s home run tally, the issue likely to receive the greatest scrutiny moving forward will be a long history of allowing free passes. This season, the All-Star’s control was superb – better than the league-average. But that hasn’t been the case throughout his big-league career.
Ray’s Walk Rate Through The Years*
*MLB average BB% for starting pitchers in 2021 was 7.7%
Considering the organization’s emphasis on controlling the strike zone, Seattle must feel comfortable Ray has exorcised the walk demons. To that point, Keegan Matheson of MLB.com noted earlier this season the 2021 Cy Young winner made adjustments to his pitch usage and delivery that permitted him to take advantage of his raw talent. In the end, it led to a $115 million contact with the saber-centric Mariners.
Signing Ray will cost the Mariners their third-highest pick in the June 2022 MLB Amateur draft. But that’s a small price to pay (along with $115 million) to acquire for a starter capable of raising the floor of the team’s rotation in 2022 and beyond.
While adding Ray is great news for the Mariners and its playoff-starved fan base, more is needed to field a postseason rotation in 2022. Remember, the 2021 Mariners rotation wasn’t good enough to seriously contend.
2021 Mariners Rotation Rankings
4.61 ERA (19th)
20.1 SO% (23rd)
7.7 BB% (11th)
4.66 FIP (22nd)
.255 AVG (21st)
.314 wOBA (15th)
.318 xwOBA (18th)
Currently, the Opening Day rotation projects to be Gonzales, Ray, Gilbert, Flexen, and a gaggle of youngsters vying for the final spot in the rotation. At the moment, it’s reasonable to view Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, and Matt Brash as the top candidates since they’re currently on the 40-man roster.
That said, we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of other starters in the pipeline entering the mix either in Peoria or during the regular season.
While the notion of using young arms to round out the rotation sounds cool and fun, doing so at the beginning of the season is fraught with risk.
This year, we witnessed top prospects Sheffield and Dunn struggle once they were thrust into full-time service. Even Gilbert scuffled upon arriving from the minors before finally stabilizing late in the season. For this reason, adding at least one more established starter to the mix makes too much sense.
Whether that starter is the same caliber as Ray or free agent Marcus Stroman, or a reliable veteran like Anderson is unclear. But a team can never have enough starting pitching. We saw that in 2021 with the Mariners and even a premium organization like the Dodgers.
Having said all that, it’s only the week after Thanksgiving Day. So, there’s still plenty of time for Mariners President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto and his staff to identify and acquire more help for the starting rotation. Based on previous comments made by Dipoto regarding the offseason, the team likely adds at least one more MLB-ready arm.
Knowing this should generate some semblance of optimism among beleaguered Mariners fans. Even with a potential lockout looming later this week.
My Oh My…
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