Robbie Ray did not replicate his 2021 AL Cy Young-winning form last year. In fact, he struggled down the stretch, but he did make a solid contribution as the Mariners ended their 21-year playoff drought. Alas, he won’t get to help them try to repeat that feat. On Wednesday, the Mariners announced that the 31-year-old lefty will undergo surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon and miss the remainder of the season.
After a promising spring training in which he restored some lost velocity to his four-seam fastball, Ray made just one start, and it wasn’t pretty. Facing the Guardians on March 31, he needed 26 pitches to complete the first inning, during which he issued back-to-back four-pitch walks to José Ramírez and Josh Bell before escaping by striking out Josh Naylor. His fastball velocity quickly diminished and he lasted just 3.1 innings, walking five and surrendering four hits and five runs (three earned).
In the immediate aftermath, Ray didn’t tell reporters that he had felt tightness in his forearm starting in the second inning, a problem that he attributed to the cold weather. After undergoing an MRI the next day due to lingering soreness, he was diagnosed with a Grade 1 flexor strain; only in discussing the injury with reporters did he reveal his discomfort.
The Mariners shut Ray down for two weeks. Ahead of a consultation earlier this week, both the pitcher and the team were optimistic that his recovery was on track, but new images revealed the flexor tendon strain. In a briefing before Wednesday’s game in Philadelphia, manager Scott Servais told reporters, “The actual area that he damaged, that [has] been kind of repaired… But he got some new images, and then he was still having some pain down in the elbow area. So, they took some more images and that’s what they found.”
Thus ends the second season of Ray’s five-year, $115 million deal with the Mariners, who signed him away from the Blue Jays on November 30, 2021, less than two weeks after he won the Cy Young. He led the AL in ERA (2.84), strikeouts (248), innings (193.1) and bWAR (6.9), though due to his comparatively gaudy 1.54 HR/9 and 3.69 FIP, he placed just seventh in fWAR (3.9). With the Mariners, Ray similarly struggled to keep the ball in the park, serving up 1.52 homers per nine. Meanwhile, as his average four-seam velocity dipped from 94.8 mph to 93.4, his strikeout and walk rates moved in the wrong direction, with the former dropping from 32.1% to 27.4% and the latter rising from 6.7% to 8%. Still, he topped 200 strikeouts for the fifth time in his career, with 212; among active lefties, only Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw have done so more times (seven apiece).
Even with the strikeouts, Ray’s 3.71 ERA, 4.17 FIP, and 1.8 fWAR were middling compared to his 2021 numbers because he particularly scuffled in September, getting tattooed for a 5.27 ERA and 5.89 FIP in 27.1 innings over his final five starts, all of them Mariners losses. Only one of those was a quality start, that after he’d delivered six straight from August 5 to September 3. His struggles continued into the postseason, as he lasted just three innings while giving up four runs in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against the Blue Jays (though they came back to win in dramatic fashion), then served up a walk-off three-run homer to Yordan Alvarez in relief in the Division Series opener against the Astros. He got the final two outs for the Mariners in the 18-inning epic Game 3, but only after Penn Murfee served up the decisive solo homer to Jeremy Peña.
It doesn’t appear as though Ray’s late-season slide is related to his injury given how well he pitched well during spring training, allowing two runs in 17 innings while striking out 25 and averaging above 95 mph with his fastball. Via the Seattle Times‘ Adam Jude, Ray “credited his improved velocity this spring to being able to have a normal offseason routine — no MLB lockout to work around, no free agency to navigate, to need to get acclimated to a new team and a new city.”
All of which makes this injury an even bigger bummer, for as Leo Morgenstern noted, Ray’s a much different pitcher with an extra bit of velocity. Picking up his table from a couple weeks ago:
Ray’s Career Performance by FB Velocity
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Already Ray’s loss has put the Mariners in a somewhat unfamiliar position, because last year, they didn’t send a single starter to the injured list. Ray — who himself has never been on the IL due to an arm injury and who ranks sixth in games started since 2016 (193) — Logan Gilbert, and Marco Gonzales each made full complements of 32 starts, while George Kirby was recalled in early May to replace the struggling Matt Brash, and Chris Flexen made 21 before shifting to the bullpen when Luis Castillo was acquired on July 30. No streak like that lasts forever, though, particularly at a time when injuries are on the rise.
As to where this leaves the Mariners, who are just 11-13 and in fourth place in the AL West, the answer is pretty much the same as before: looking for a reliable replacement. Castillo has been fantastic, pitching to a 1.52 ERA and 1.64 FIP, while Gilbert, Gonzales and Kirby have been good enough; each has either an ERA or FIP of 3.32 or lower, with the other figure half to three-quarters of a run higher. Flexen, however, has been rocked for a 10.38 ERA and 6.96 FIP in 17.1 innings while being hit at a .345/.417/.566 clip, which at the very least puts him on thin ice.
As for the alternatives, the most likely in the short term is probably 36-year-old lefty Tommy Milone, who made a cameo on April 14, throwing 4.2 innings of one-run ball against the Rockies, walking two, striking out three, and serving up a homer. That was the well-traveled southpaw’s first major league start in almost exactly two years, though he did make seven appearances out of the bullpen for Seattle last year. Since 2016, he’s had stints with eight teams (including the Mariners in 2019 as well), posting a 5.75 ERA and 5.39 FIP in 330 innings, which doesn’t suggest he’s a permanent solution.
Milone’s currently pitching for Triple-A Tacoma, as are righties Easton McGee and Darren McCaughan, both of whom are on the 40-man roster as organizational depth rather than as prospects. The 25-year-old McGee, who stands 6-foot-6, was a fourth-round pick by the Rays in 2016; he made one three-inning relief appearance for the team last year but was subsequently lost on waivers to the Red Sox and then sold to the Mariners. He’s a soft-tossing sinker/slider type who has historically generated a ton of groundballs while missing few bats, though last year, he suddenly became a fly baller; it didn’t work well, as he served up 2.01 homers per nine while posting a 5.43 ERA with a 17.4% strikeout rate and a 5.72 FIP at Triple-A Durham. The 27-year-old McCaughan, a 2017 12th-round pick, has three major league appearances totaling 10 innings, one of which came this year; he’s spent parts of five seasons including most of the past two at Tacoma, where last year he posted a 4.56 ERA, 22% strikeout rate, and 4.72 FIP. After striking out 10 in his most recent start on April 23, he could be in line for a look.
Of greater interest from a prospect standpoint and also at Tacoma (but not on the 40-man) is 24-year-old righty Taylor Dollard, who last year was a 45 FV prospect and the organization’s Minor League Player (and Pitcher) of the Year after putting up a 2.25 ERA and 3.60 FIP at Double-A Arkansas. A fifth-round 2020 pick, he gained some velocity last year and now throws in the 91-93 mph range, though reports of a plus slider (sweeper) and plus command have been offset by recent struggles to locate the pitch. The general consensus is that he’s a solid back-end candidate in the making, though in the wake of a rough outing, he just landed on Tacoma’s seven-day injured list due to arm soreness.
Also from their 2020 draft is first-round pick (no. 6 overall) Emerson Hancock, a 23-year-old righty who’s been at Arkansas since late 2021 and who has been selected for the past two Futures Games. “Some felt Hancock had the best pure stuff in the 2020 draft, as he consistently touches the upper 90s and adds a vicious slider,” wrote Eric Longehagen in Hancock’s Prospect TLDR, but since then a shoulder injury (2021) and lat injury (2022) have slowed both his development and his fastball, limiting him to 143 professional innings and a four-seamer that’s now averaging 94 mph. His changeup is now the star of a four-pitch mix with potentially plus command. Last year at Arkansas, he posted a 3.75 ERA but a 5.31 FIP in 98.1 innings.
Arkansas teammates Bryce Miller (the team’s only preseason top 100 prospect as a 50 FV) and Bryan Woo (a preseason Pick to Click for next year’s top 100) could both become options with more seasoning. The former has a fastball that does a ton of damage at the top of the zone and is a legit plus-plus pitch, per Longenhagen, while the latter has a fastball that’s been utterly dominant due to its riding life and uphill angle. This being the Mariners, overseen by one Jerry Dipoto, it’s safe to assume that at some point an alternative or two will come from outside the organization via a trade, though the prospect cupboard is comparativley bare relative to past years. Until then, the team will have to find ways to escape the doldrums with the options on hand. Already their playoff ddds have taken a huge hit relative to the preseason:
Mariners Change in Playoff Odds
Among AL teams, only the 24.5% drop (from 30.5% to 6%) of the White Sox is larger. Seattle still has a much better chance than Chicago, but without Ray, the team’s road to October won’t get any easier.