Opinion | A Robbie Ray-Blue Jays reunion could happen. Just don’t bet the franchise on it

The Blue Jays would love to find a way to re-sign Robbie Ray, but the question GM Ross Atkins will ask himself in the coming weeks is how far is he willing to go to make this happen?

The fit between these two parts seems obvious. The Blue Jays need pitching and, after veteran Max Scherzer, Ray is the best available through free agency. If Ray returns, Atkins will have the most rotation in the AL East, perhaps in all of baseball.

Ray also seemed to enjoy his year and a half stint with the Blue Jays, despite spending more time in Buffalo than in Toronto due to the pandemic. The 30-year-old fell in love with pitching coach Pete Walker and turned his career around in what will soon become a Cy Young Award-winning season.

The Jays are expected to have a lot of money to spend this offseason, potentially more than $ 50 million (US), and George Springer is the only player with a guaranteed contract beyond 2023. With the capacity to beat almost any offer. there, re-signing with Ray should be a no-brainer, right? Well not exactly.

There’s a big gap between the 2021 version of Ray that the Blue Jays got to see firsthand and the guy who pitched parts of seven seasons in the majors before that. The former would be worth almost every penny you receive this winter, the latter would be destined for a very large overpayment.

The benchmark Ray is likely to target this offseason is the $ 118 million five-year contract that Zack Wheeler got from the Philadelphia Phillies before 2020. The two pitchers have different styles, but they entered free agency at the same age with somewhat comparable track records, although it’s worth noting that Wheeler was the more consistent performer, while Ray had more peaks and valleys.

Wheeler had the lowest ERA of his career (3.77 vs. 4.00), but the teams that were offending for him that offseason, including the Blue Jays, were betting on his untapped potential and the belief that he would surpass his previous numbers. . After a couple of consecutive seasons with an ERA below 3.00, the Phillies’ gamble has paid off.

It’s a similar story with Ray, except he’s already shown that advantage with a dominant 2021. The Tennessee native posted career highs in innings (193.1), strikeouts (248) and wins over replacement (6.7). He also posted career lows in walks / hits per inning pitched (1,045) and walks per nine innings (2.4).

Its highest bidders will be confident that that level of performance will continue for the foreseeable future. What they can’t afford is a comeback of the type he was before, an erratic southpaw who frequently battled mechanical issues while posting a 4.53 ERA with 5.1 walks for nine and a WHIP of 1,427 from 2018-20.

Ray has a chance to secure more guaranteed money than any other pitcher this winter, and yet there’s a reason he was forced to settle for a short-term contract a year ago. Ray made his own bet that it would be worth more the next time it was released, which turned out to be a wise move. Now teams will have to wonder if it will ever be worth its current price again, or if this is another problem.

Robbie Ray posted career highs in innings (193.1), strikeouts (248) and wins over replacement (6.7) with the Blue Jays in 2021. He also posted career lows in walks / hits per inning pitched (1,045) and walks. for nine entries (2.4).

Internally, the Blue Jays have bought their best strike pitch after Ray worked hard with Walker en route to throwing a career-best 50.8 percent of his pitches in the zone. They believe he found a repeatable delivery that should help avoid the 2020 nightmare of walking 7.8 batters for nine innings.

Ray is a powerful pitcher, not a picky guy, but when he rolled during the summer months he not only threw strikes, he seemed to be putting the ball almost anywhere he wanted. Fastballs were painted in the black of the corners of home plate with relative ease.

With hitters anticipating more strikes, it also meant they were forced to chase more pitches, especially Ray’s lethal slider. His 30.1 out-of-zone swing percentage was the second highest he has ever recorded. Strike pitching in general could stick around, but those perfectly placed corner pitches seem less sustainable, which would also lead to less chase.

Another potential concern is that Ray has become a two-pitch starter with maximum effort. He throws his fastball and slider combination almost exclusively, only occasionally throwing a curveball or switch. That’s effective now, but could prove unsustainable on the backside of a long-term deal if you experience a drop in speed.

One of three things is going to happen with Ray: he is going to choose his preferred destination and needs less money for this to happen; A team and their agent will line up on a deal that takes into account both their lead and past drops in production; or a team hungry for pitchers will trust their Cy Young performance to continue and offer whatever it takes to get them signed.

The Blue Jays would love the first option because it means they would accept a local discount to stay, but that rarely happens among the game’s elite players. The second could work too, a middle ground between the pitcher Ray used to be and the one he became. The third would almost certainly result in his departure because while the Blue Jays want him back, they aren’t going to spend what is necessary, especially if it hinders their ability to sign José Berríos with a long-term extension.

Ray has one of the most interesting cases of any free agent on the market this year. He is the very definition of a high-risk, high-reward pitcher, and while the Blue Jays desperately need his lead, with many viable alternatives available elsewhere, don’t expect them to go out of their way to make this signing happen. There will be a limit, they just have to hope there is a way to keep Ray within it.

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