TORONTO -- The Blue Jays are wasting no time in an offseason in which they’re expected to be one of baseball’s more aggressive clubs. On Saturday, Toronto agreed to terms on a one-year, $8 million deal with free-agent left-hander Robbie Ray, the club announced.
Ray is coming off an uneven 2020 season that started with the D-backs and ended with the Blue Jays, who acquired him at the Trade Deadline in a deal for Travis Bergen. Ray, 29, was sharper with Toronto, flashing the talent that tempted the Blue Jays to bet on his significant upside, and they’re doing it again.
At his best, in 2017, Ray posted a 2.89 ERA over 28 starts with the D-backs and has been fairly durable throughout his Major League career, which the Blue Jays value. Ray’s struggles in '20, however, were mostly tied to control, as he led the league with 45 walks en route to a 6.62 ERA.
It may look counterintuitive on the surface level, after Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins and president and CEO Mark Shapiro have spoken about the importance of improving the club’s strike-throwing entering 2021, but this move is clearly about who Toronto thinks Ray can be, not who he was in '20. Ray’s strikeout rate is exceptional for a starter, at 11.1 batters per nine innings over his career, and pitching coach Pete Walker and the Blue Jays don’t need to get Ray to the point where he’s painting corners each and every start. As long as Ray can find the zone with some level of consistency, his fastball and slider can be dominant when it all clicks.
That fastball averaged 93.9 mph in 2020, according to Statcast, including some impressive peaks along the way as Ray was feeling particularly good, physically, on the mound. That puts his average velocities closer to '17 (94.2 mph) than '19, when his average dipped to 92.4.
The return of Ray isn’t a shock, because there was a reason the Blue Jays liked him when they first acquired him a few months ago. What’s surprising here is the timing, as Toronto is jumping the market to make one of the very first splashes of this offseason. Many expect the Blue Jays to be one of the drivers in this market, but given the payroll uncertainties related to the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody is expecting this market to move swiftly. For those teams who can afford to spend at the middle and top tiers, there will certainly be opportunities.
Speaking recently, Shapiro said that the club hoped to continue its path from last offseason, when it landed ace Hyun Jin Ryu on a four-year, $80 million deal. The 2021 budget may not be set in stone, but this should be viewed as an encouraging first step.
“I think the resources are going to be there if we think the right deals are there, and if we make those recommendations, those resources are going to be there for us to add in a meaningful way,” Shapiro said. “We’ll conduct this offseason much like last offseason.”
Simply put, the Blue Jays wouldn't spend $8 million on Ray if they didn't expect to have several moves coming behind this one, and there’s plenty of time to make that happen both in free agency and on the trade market, where clubs could be looking to unload contracts. This won’t be the final rotation addition, either.
Beyond Ryu and No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson, the Blue Jays now have Ray penciled in. Tanner Roark’s $12 million salary means he’ll likely slot in on the back end as he tries to rebound from a poor 2020, while another Deadline acquisition, Ross Stripling, will be in the mix. Don’t forget the deep group of young arms, either, led by Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay, Julian Merryweather and Trent Thornton.
That’s a lot of names, which is a good thing for the Blue Jays. Where they’ve prioritized depth in the past, they now have much of that built in from their own farm system.
A team can never have enough pitching depth, as the saying goes, but the Blue Jays may not have to focus as much of their financial flexibility there. Instead, this rotation would look much stronger if the front office can complement it with another No. 2-caliber starter, which Atkins alluded to the possibility of after Toronto was eliminated from postseason contention.
“I think we are in a position where we could add to this team with talent that is condensed in one player and a super high impact,” Atkins said. “We got to the point last year where we felt like the team was competitive enough to move towards winning, and that was a big part of that decision [to sign Ryu].”
While the rotation will remain a top priority, the Blue Jays are also expected to be in the market for bullpen help and potentially a third baseman.