'Lead dog' Ray ready to bring WS to Seattle

December 1st, 2021

SEATTLE -- The Mariners aren’t just confident that they’ve found an ace by signing . They also believe that bringing in the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner signals to the rest of the league and other free agents that they are serious about making a push for the postseason in 2022.

Ray was formally introduced on Wednesday at T-Mobile Park by Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto shortly after the left-hander put pen to paper on a five-year, $115 million contract.

“This team, the city is hungry for a World Series,” Ray said, donning a white No. 38 Mariners jersey. “To be a part of it and bring it back right here, I just wanted to be here.”

Wednesday’s introduction culminated a negotiation that began last Friday and aggressively developed over the weekend. Ray's agent, Steve Veltman at VC Sports Group, reached out to Dipoto expressing interest in Seattle, which prompted a lengthy Zoom call with Ray and his wife, Taylor. After that conversation, Mariners manager Scott Servais told Dipoto, emphatically: “That’s our guy.”

Shortly after, Ray conducted another Zoom call with the Mariners’ pitching brain trust and analytics specialists, which in turn sold him on Seattle’s progressive strategies.

“They're pushing the envelope,” Ray said. “They're working hard to maximize every pitcher’s output, and for me, I think what was the main thing was that it's not just like a cookie-cutter thing. It's not one size fits all. … They’re so focused on each individual pitcher and maximizing that person's potential, and that's what kind of sold me.”

Ray, 30, was among the slew of blockbuster free agents who’ve signed in the past week as part of the scramble ahead of Wednesday’s 8:59 p.m. PT expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. He was prepared to enter a possible lockout without a new gig, but once the mutual interest was clear, Dipoto’s front office made a big push.

“We were very excited about Seattle,” Ray said. “The direction, the vision, and it was just a good fit. And everything just lined up for us to make it happen beforehand.”

Ray, 30, is coming off a banner year with the Blue Jays in which he led AL starters in ERA (2.84), strikeouts (248), innings (193 1/3), starts (32), WHIP (1.045) and ERA+ (154), all while pitching in the gauntlet of an AL East division that featured three postseason teams. He received 29 of the 30 first-place votes for the AL Cy Young Award and was one of five starting pitchers named to the All-MLB team. The superlatives for his 2021 go on and on, but what stood out most, in the Mariners’ eyes, were the mechanical changes that led to his most consistent season yet.

Ray had a career-high 17.9% walk rate in 2020 and a 6.62 ERA that left him without many contract options beyond taking the one-year, $8 million deal Toronto offered. So last offseason, Ray added more of a turn to his delivery that he had previously used in the Minor Leagues way back in 2012. That adjustment allowed a more consistent release point, Ray said, which helped him better exploit his elite swing-and-miss stuff over the plate.

“We’ve focused on dominating the strike zone,” Dipoto said. “I think that was the key ingredient for Robbie in 2021, taking the step from good to great was dominating the zone the way he did.”

Ray didn’t elaborate on the other offers that he had, other than saying that there was a lot of dialogue with other teams. But Seattle’s pitch and the fit were the most competitive. Ray’s contract -- the richest in Dipoto’s six-year tenure -- includes an opt-out after three years, a full no-trade clause for the first two years and an assignment bonus if he’s dealt in the third year or later. Those are all components that Dipoto has typically steered from.

“This is more or less getting in line with the times,” Dipoto said. “When you are signing players of this ilk or accomplishment, you have to be willing to accept the fact that this is part of today's game. It might not have been as common 10 years ago, but it is becoming increasingly more common. We thought we would rather provide that than lose the chance of having Robbie Ray.”

Ray, who Dipoto introduced as “the lead dog,” will headline a starting rotation that also includes Chris Flexen, Logan Gilbert and clubhouse leader Marco Gonzales, with room to add another arm via free agency or trade this offseason. The Mariners are counting on younger prospects contributing next season, with Matt Brash (the club's No. 10 prospect) and Brandon Williamson (No. 7) knocking on the big league door. But Seattle would still like to add another established starter to help bridge to its farm system.

But for now, the day was about their big-ticket signee -- and perhaps one of many dominoes that will fall for the Mariners this offseason.

“The most important thing is that I'm a Seattle Mariner, and that this is where I want to be,” Ray said. “If it wasn't a good fit, I wasn't going to force it. But it was just the right fit.”