Blue Jays: The most likely comp for Robbie Ray’s next contract

Sep 30, 2021; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Robbie Ray (38) delivers a pitch against New York Yankees in the first inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 30, 2021; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Robbie Ray (38) delivers a pitch against New York Yankees in the first inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /
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Robbie Ray‘s pending free agency represents one of the biggest decisions the Blue Jays will have to make this offseason, and it won’t be easy for Ross Atkins and his staff.

In theory it’s a no-brainer to try to retain the likely AL Cy Young award winner for 2021, especially because it’s been such a great fit between Ray and the Jays since he was acquired last summer. Not only has he turned his career around in a positive direction, he’s performing at a level that I’m not anyone could have predicted.

As a result of a career year from Ray in 2021 that included an AL best 2.84 ERA, 1.045 WHIP, 193.1 innings pitched, and 248 strikeouts, the southpaw is about to get a massive raise. The Jays received one of the best bargains in baseball when Ray re-signed for one year and just eight million for the 2021 campaign, and it’s likely that he can take that figure and multiply it by at least a baker’s dozen for his next one.

It’s not easy to predict Ray’s next contract, but I would argue that there’s a very strong comp for Ray’s agents to point to, and it won’t help the Blue Jays or anyone else’s cause to try and keep the cost down. For Ray’s camp, it’ll be all too easy to point to the five-year, 118 million dollar pact that Zack Wheeler received from the Phillies prior to the 2021 season.

To be fair, Wheeler had a better track record of performance at the time that he signed his current contract, and he was coming off of two above-average seasons with the Mets before hitting free agency. The right-hander had a rough season in 2017 when he returned from Tommy John surgery, but he was very productive during his first two seasons as a big leaguer in 2013 and 2014. The only real knock on Wheeler’s track record was the arm injuries that kept him on the sidelines throughout 2015-16, but he still looked like a pitcher who had yet to reach his potential (which turned out to be the case).

Ray’s story is a bit different in that he’s been fortunate to avoid major injury problems throughout his big league career. Wheeler debuted in 2013 and Ray followed a season later in 2014, but Ray has eight big league seasons under his belt to Wheeler’s seven. That said, it hasn’t always been a smooth ride for the hard-throwing Tennessee native, even if he was an NL All-Star in 2017.

While I’ve acknowledged their differences, I actually feel like there are a lot of similarities between the two and the timing of their free agency trips. Each of them pitched as a 29 year old prior to heading into free agency, which is an interesting time for a starter. They’re young enough that they’re easily still in their prime, but old enough to give some pause on the length of the next contract. Gerrit Cole was a rare exception when he signed a nine-year deal with the Yankees, but I’m willing to bet there are already a few folks in their front office that are second-guessing that mega-deal.

Like Wheeler, Ray is also in a position where he’s not exactly a proven commodity just yet. I do think he’ll add a Cy Young award to his resume soon, and that obviously works in his favour when negotiating his next contract. That said, it’s understandable if his suitors are still questioning if they just witnessed the best we’ll ever see from Ray, and if he can produce anywhere near the same going forward. Both pitchers also rely pretty heavily on a combo of fastballs and sliders, although Wheeler does mix in his other offerings a little more frequently.

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In the end, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Ray’s camp is looking for a deal in the five-year, 125 million dollar range, especially given the contract that Wheeler received just two years ago. It remains to be seen if the Blue Jays or any other team would be willing to pay that much, or even take things further, but I believe the days of expecting Ray to sign for less than 100 million are behind us. As long as he’s signing with the Blue Jays, I hope I’m wrong.