Cross another top starting pitcher off the list, as the Mariners agreed on Monday to a five-year deal with the reigning AL Cy Young winner, Robbie Ray, formerly of the Blue Jays. The contract, worth $115 million, also includes a no-trade clause for the first two seasons and an opt-out that Ray can exercise after the 2024 season.
Reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray and the Seattle Mariners are finalizing a five-year, $115 million contract with an opt-out after the third season, sources familiar with the deal tell ESPN.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 29, 2021
It’s quite the reversal of fortunate for the lefty, who was coming off an unforgettable 2020 campaign; anybody would have a hard time wiping their memory of a season in which they walked eight batters per nine innings. The Jays will be sad to lose him, but in signing him last year for all of $8 million, they scored one of the top starters in baseball plus earned an extra draft pick as a chaser — and Ray’s replacement, Kevin Gausman, who was signed over the weekend, is a pretty good pitcher himself.
It’s hard to say that Ray emerging once more as a solid contributor in 2021 was a complete shock — ZiPS projected an ERA of 4.15, and I believe Steamer was in the same neighborhood — but few saw him returning to the pitcher he was in 2017. And while some regression toward the mean is likely, given the simple fact that his FIP was a run worse than his ERA, there are few danger signs lurking in the shadows. His fastball was as hard velocity-wise as it’s ever been, and it’s rare for a large improvement in walk rate to be a mirage. He was as hard to make contact as he usually is, but this time, batters couldn’t simply wait for him to throw a couple fastballs in the dirt.
ZiPS Projection – Robbie Ray
Like most of the big signings, the contractual terms seem to align with the reasonable expectations and the risk. Just like the Rangers aren’t paying Marcus Semien as if he’ll finish in third place in the AL MVP race again, Seattle isn’t paying Ray as if the baseline expectation is a Cy Young repeat. At $7.3 million per ZiPS WAR and 3% yearly salary growth, which I’ve been going with this over this offseason (though this is obviously a guessing game), ZiPS projects a five-year offer at $109 million, just under what he actually got. It’s a good price, and I think given where the Mariners are in the AL West right now, they could have justified spending quite a bit more if they had to in order to land him.
One of my long-term complaints about the Mariners as an organization is that they sometimes act like they don’t know quite where the roster is. In past seasons where I thought they had serious contention hopes, they’ve sometimes been surprisingly conservative; in other seasons, usually right after one of those wacky run-differential outperformance years, they’ve acted like they’re contenders that just needed the final piece. This time, I get the impression that they know where they are: a team coming off a very fortunate season, but an interesting one with upside talent that needs a couple of big stars. The Adam Frazier trade filled a short-term need at second base, and now the Ray signing addresses what is a Grand Canyon-sized hole at the top of the rotation.
The Mariners have been looking for an ace for the pitching staff before and since Félix Hernández was reduced to commoner status; in 20 years, they have only had three seasons of four WAR or more from starting pitchers who weren’t King Felix. James Paxton was the most recent one, in 2017, but he never was able to stay healthy to be The Guy at the top for Seattle and still has yet to throw enough innings in a season to qualify for the ERA title. Cliff Lee was a short-term rental, and Hisashi Iwakuma fell off quickly after his big 2013 season. Ray is not at the level of peak Jacob deGrom or new Mets co-ace Max Scherzer, but he’s the first starting pitcher the team has had since Hernández whom you can feel comfortable riding for 180 innings at the top of the rotation.
This is good timing for the Mariners, too, because big moves were needed to keep pace in a division with teams that, with the exception of a certain squad in the Bay Area, appear to have a lot of cash they’re suddenly itching to spend. I was skeptical about the Rangers even with the Semien signing, but adding Corey Seager and Jon Gray makes them far more interesting than they were a couple of weeks ago. The Astros, meanwhile, have re-signed Justin Verlander, and rumors are flying that the Angels will be going hard after one of the most enticing pitchers plausibly available in a trade, Luis Castillo of the Reds.
Running some quick, grotesquely premature projections for the AL West, ZiPS currently has the Mariners as roughly an 85-win team. That may sound disappointing, but one has to remember that they’re coming off a season with a run differential that gave them a Pythagorean record of 76–86, a number that historically is significantly more predictive than actual win-loss record. Eighty-five wins at this point in the offseason is a good place to be, and if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, I don’t think Seattle is done yet; I would not be surprised if another corner outfielder, another starting pitcher to go along with Ray, and a bullpen arm or two gets added to the final count.
If 2021’s 90-win season was a lot of flash, the Mariners are now using their cash to back it up. They already appeared to be going in the right direction, and after signing Ray, they look much closer to their destination.