The Mariners are closing in on an agreement with reigning American League Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, as first reported by Michael Mayer of MetsMerized (Twitter link). It’s a five-year deal worth $115M and an opt-out after the third season, reports ESPN’s Jeff Passan (via Twitter). Joel Sherman of the New York Post adds that the contract includes a full no-trade clause in the first two seasons and a trade assignment bonus if he’s moved thereafter. Ray is represented by VC Sports Group.
Ray, 30, has long been a premier strikeout arm with command issues, which culminated in a 2020 season that saw him traded from Arizona to Toronto in what amounted to a salary dump. While the lefty didn’t immediately turn things around, the Jays jumped to re-sign him for a year and $8M right out of the gate in the 2020-21 offseason, clearly believing they could help the lefty find another gear.
Even the Toronto front office’s best-case scenario might not have mirrored the 2021 breakout enjoyed by Ray, who was near-unanimously named AL Cy Young (29 of 30 first-place votes). Ray not only restored his command to prior levels, but took it to new heights, walking a career-low 6.7% of his opponents. Ray ramped up the usage of his four-seamer at the expensive of his curveball, largely favoring a two-pitch mix that leaned heavily on his plus slider’s ability to perplex opponents.
The results were obviously outstanding. Ray compiled an AL-best 2.84 ERA and also paced the American League in innings pitched (193 1/3), total strikeouts (248) and ERA+ (154). Among pitchers with at least 100 innings, Ray’s overall 32.1% strikeout rate trailed only Corbin Burnes, Carlos Rodon, Max Scherzer, Freddy Peralta and Gerrit Cole. His 15.5% swinging-strike rate ranked third among the 129 hurlers who tossed 100-plus frames.
Ray was still prone to the long ball, evidenced by an unsightly 1.54 HR/9 mark, but his ability to keep runners off the basepaths led to nearly 70 percent of those long balls coming with the bases empty. It’s fair to wonder how much concern over that penchant might have impacted his market and kept him from reaching a sixth guaranteed year, but one would also imagine that a move to Seattle and a move out of the generally hitter-friendly AL East will only help to lower that mark.
With Ray departing the Blue Jays, it’s hard to ignore the striking similarity between his contract and the $110M guaranteed by his former team to another free-agent starter: righty Kevin Gausman. Perhaps the Jays weren’t keen on including an opt-out in the deal, or perhaps they just generally prefer Gausman to Ray when all is said and done. Toronto did pursue Gausman both in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 offseasons, so he’s clearly been of interest to GM Ross Atkins & Co. for quite some time.
In signing Ray, who rejected a qualifying offer in Toronto, the Mariners will surrender their third-highest selection in the 2022 draft. Toronto, meanwhile, will pick up a compensatory pick at the end of the first round by virtue of the fact that Ray signed for more than $50M in guaranteed money.
With the Mariners, Ray will head up a rotation that also includes lefty Marco Gonzales, righty Chris Flexen and righty Logan Gilbert. Gonzales has long been a steady and durable source of above-average innings, while Flexen proved to be a savvy KBO reclamation project for president of baseball ops Jerry Dipoto and his staff this past offseason. Gilbert, meanwhile, is a former first-round pick and top-end pitching prospect who struggled in the middle of the 2021 season but book-ended those struggles with a strong start and strong finish to the season.
Other options in the Seattle rotation currently include Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn, though the Mariners are deep in tantalizing pitching prospects after a protracted rebuilding effort. Top prospects George Kirby, Matt Brash and Emerson Hancock are all progressing through the system, with Brash and Kirby in particular not far from big league readiness. Lefty Brandon Williamson, too, could emerge as an option before long.
Of course, it’s fair to wonder with all that pitching depth and with a good bit of outfield depth if the Mariners might not choose to trade for another established rotation piece. Ray figures to be the big-ticket free agent addition on the pitching side — not that they couldn’t simply sign another notable arm — but there’s a bevy of quality arms rumored to be available in trade. Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas, Sonny Gray, Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo have all had their names kicked about the rumor circuit already, and the Marlins are reportedly open to dealing from their pitching depth as well. Whether it’s a trade or a free agent, another addition to the starting staff to complement the Mariners’ new ace seems likely at some point.
For the time being, it’s possible Seattle will pivot to acquire the bat Dipoto has already suggested he hopes to sign. Dipoto name-checked both Marcus Semien (now with the Rangers) and Javier Baez earlier this winter in voicing a desire to add some “adaptable” free agents, and the Mariners have also been tied to Kris Bryant and Chris Taylor, among others.
From a payroll vantage point, the Mariners should be able to add a high-end bat and another rotation addition piece. Even after adding Ray, the Mariners are still projected by Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez to field a payroll of about $88M (assuming an even distribution of his $23M annual value). For a Mariners club that has taken payroll north of $150M in the past, there’s plenty of space to add to pile. Ray currently stands as the largest free-agent addition the Mariners have made under Dipoto, but if he wants to spend more aggressively, the means to do should be present.
After all, the Mariners are staring down a two-decade playoff drought, and now more than ever might be the time for Seattle to push toward ending that dry spell. The Mariners were surprisingly in contention for a wild-card berth right up until the final weekend of the offseason, and they’ll have even more products of their ballyhooed farm system graduating to the majors in 2022 — headlined by outfielder Julio Rodriguez. Beyond that, the A’s are on the verge of a tear-down that will see them trade several key players, while the Astros could lose Carlos Correa in free agency. The Rangers are spending aggressively to help put a contender back on the field in the second season of their newly constructed stadium but may be a year or two from truly competing.
In many ways, the time for the Mariners to throttle ahead is now, and the signing of Ray serves as a firm indicator that the front office feels similarly. Armed with an elite farm system and tens of millions of dollars in payroll space, Seattle appears poised for an aggressive winter where Ray is just one of several high-end additions.