When the Blue Jays acquired Robbie Ray at last year’s trade deadline, he was a shell of his former self. The 29-year-old lefty was in the midst of the worst year of his career, posting an ugly 7.84 ERA, a career-low 1.39 K/BB ratio, and was leading the National League in walks.
It was quite a fall for Ray, who three years earlier posted a sub 3.00 ERA, made an All-Star appearance and finished 7th in NL Cy Young voting. Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins was betting on Ray’s ability to find his former self when he acquired the Tennessee native from the Diamondbacks in exchange for LHP Travis Bergen.
Atkins was hopeful that with the help of pitching coach Pete Walker, Ray would be able to tweak his delivery and find his command, which would help the southpaw fully utilize his elite arsenal.
So far, acquiring Ray is paying dividends for the Blue Jays. After six solid appearances with the club to cap off 2020, Ray immediately re-signed on a one-year prove-it deal this past off-season. This showed how comfortable Ray felt within the organization, as he viewed the Blue Jays as the best place for him to rebuild his stock that had plummeted during the 2020 season.
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The left-hander was one of the first free agents to sign, meaning he was a Jay for the entire winter. This allowed him to work closely with Walker all offseason, to help build off the strides they made together at the end of last year.
So far this season, Ray has been everything that the Jays could have asked for. The lefty has had a great start to his 2021 campaign, posting a 3.57 ERA and career bests in BB/9 and K/BB ratio in his first ten starts.
If you’ve tuned into any of Ray’s outings, it’s clear that his command is miles ahead of where it was last year, which has been a huge factor in his early success. Ray has also seen a slight uptick in both his fastball and slider velocity, going from an average of 94MPH and 87 MPH to 95 MPH and 89MPH respectively. This added velocity paired with his revitalized command has made Ray extremely tough to barrel up and has helped him pitch deep into games, giving the Jays plenty of quality innings.
With the success that Ray has enjoyed early on, I think it is reasonable to view the Tennessee native as a long-term piece of this team. If the Blue Jays view Ray in the same light, Atkins would be wise to try to lock the southpaw up before he hits the open market next winter.
Ray has clearly enjoyed his time within the organization, considering that he chose to re-sign with them this past off-season and has had one of the best years of his career with the club as well. Playing in the hitter-friendly AL East and (normally) North of the border can make it difficult to attract pitchers in free agency.
The Jays have had Ray in-house for a year and a half, which should make him easier to sign instead of trying to wait until free agency and attempting to lure in a comparable arm like Eduardo Rodríguez or Jon Gray.
Along with being familiar and comfortable with the club, Ray shouldn’t break the bank either from a price point perspective. I will be stunned if the lefty comes close to the 3 year – 55 million dollar (18.3M AAV) contract Dallas Keuchel earned two offseason’s ago. Though Keuchel was a year older than Ray when he inked his deal, he had a much more consistent track record, with a career ERA sitting 55 points below Ray’s, and a Cy Young award on his resume, which presumably inflated his value.
I would expect Ray’s new deal to come a little shy of what Keuchel got, and “guesstimate” it will land somewhere in the 13-15 million dollar per year range. A contract this size will leave the Jays with plenty of financial flexibility to make other moves next offseason, like bringing in another starter along with Ray, extending Vladdy, bringing back Marcus Semien, or going out and acquiring another bat.
I think it’s safe to say that Ray has exceeded everyone’s expectations this season. He has clearly enjoyed his time with the club and shouldn’t require a lucrative contract to resign when he becomes a free agent after this season. Because of this, I think it’s time for the Jays to hammer out an extension for Robbie Ray, and keep a key piece of this rotation around for a couple more seasons.