Assuming nothing changes in the next 72 hours, Robbie Ray’s place in the Tigers rotation is going back to its rightful owner: Anibal Sanchez. With that, the Tigers will have their staff intact once again, while leaving them with a decision about what to do with Ray, who has performed well in two starts against two reasonable soft opponents. What should the Tigers do?
The easiest solution is to toss Ray back to Toledo and let him continue on like the last two weeks never happened. He certainly has things on which to work and more seasoning as a starter in AAA should do some good. If Sanchez hadn’t injured his finger, we wouldn’t be considering anything else with respect to Ray. His command needs work and so do his offspeed pitches. Triple A is a fine choice.
Even though it was Houston (terrible) and Minnesota (very bad against LHP), Ray held his own to the tune of a 0.79 ERA and 2.40 FIP. Interestingly, Ray struck out fewer batters and walked fewer than we expected going into the season, but he was also doing that in Toledo. We don’t know how Ray would do in a full season as a starter right now, but we’ve seen a little taste and the odds that he wouldn’t suck look better. He sat 93-94 with the fastball and used the changeup pretty well. The breaking ball was hit and miss, but he wasn’t bad at all.
Which leaves us with another option. Ray in the bullpen.
I think this is a good idea, but I’m not your typical front office strategist, so if you asked me to wager, I’d say the odds of Ray heading to Toledo are probably 80/20 right now. But on the 20% side, Ray in the bullpen makes some sense. Maybe even a lot of sense.
First of all, in the bullpen you don’t need your third pitch nearly as much because you don’t see batters two and three times in one game. Two pitches can go a lot further. Second, the Tigers are going to want to manage Ray’s innings anyway during this season, so why not manage them by shortening his outings. Instead of working 6-7 inning in Toledo, run him out there for two innings at a time in Detroit. This will allow Ray to work on developing his arsenal against MLB caliber hitters, but won’t force him to run into a lineup a third time, which is when he’ll get smacked. If he can help the club, use the innings in a way that makes the most sense.
I haven’t heard anyone worry about Ray’s stamina. The question is about his stuff and his command. I don’t think he needs to learn to stretch out or pace himself, so you don’t need to keep him in Toledo because that’s the only place he could do work on that. Although, it’s important to note that you can’t just flip a switch and be ready to start again. If they move him to the pen, you won’t be able to spot start him when Smyly needs to miss two starts with an oblique injury in August. That will have to be someone else.
You’re risking a short term fill in if you move him to the bullpen and you are affecting his long term development. There are pros and cons for the latter. Maybe he needs to work as a starter to learn to be a starter, or maybe he needs to face better competition so that he is forced to use his secondary pitches more often. It’s hard to say. We probably can’t answer that without knowing the inner workings of the Tigers strategy or Ray’s own mind.
Beyond all of this is the simple bullpen need in Detroit. The bullpen isn’t very good. Nathan seems to be over his early season issues, but there really isn’t a great reliever in the bunch. Joba and Al-Al have flashed above average, but also revert back to maddening quite often. Krol is okay. Miller is fine. Reed is fine. Coke is, well, you know. It’s not a particularly atrocious bunch, but there is very little oomph. You need some knock out relievers and Ray has that ability. A lefty who can bring 94 out of the pen with some decent offspeed stuff. He could fill the Smyly role from last season, or the role Smyly should have filled before Leyland made him a one inning specialist.
Have a 4-1 lead with the starter tiring in the 7th? Bring in Ray to throw two innings. Or three. Need someone to get five outs? Ray. How about a guy to handle two lefties split by a good righty? Again, Ray. Coke is clearly not the answer and Krol doesn’t seem like he’s going to be a true setup man right away. Why not try Ray in that role?
I think it would be a very smart move for the bullpen, it would just be a question of how it would affect Ray in other ways. Smyly seems to have handled the transition well enough, but it might not work for Robbie. It also might bite them if they need three fill in starts next month and Ray isn’t stretched out.
Used properly, I think Ray could be a difference maker in the 2014 bullpen. There are reasons not to do it, but I want to see them try. If the Tigers are really committed to winning a title, this would be the kind of move they should make. Lots of teams have broken in their top prospects with bullpen duty, the Tigers could do the same. Ray probably isn’t Wainwright or Price (Almost certainly not!), but giving him 60 innings in relief this year might be the right call and I would give it a shot.
I would be against keeping Ray in the bullpen. Taking a AAA pitcher and sticking him in the bullpen on a contending team is going to be more damaging to him I think than it would be uplifting. As you point out, he wasn’t facing Murderer’s Row in his big league starts, he was facing weak teams. If you keep him in the bullpen then you’re going to have to be able to use him to keep the score close in late innings against tough teams, potentially with the division championship on the line. That’s too much pressure for a AAA pitcher.
I always hear Jim Price talking about the way they used to bring up young pitchers; let them pitch at AAA, then bring them into the bullpen and let them prove themselves, then move them into the rotation. If you look at how Smyly progressed by pitching out of the pen for a year then I would say it was a success. He did OK in his rookie season, pitched a year out of the pen and this year he is a low walk, high strike out pitcher with a 158 ERA+. That’s pretty good for a guy who has been victimized by the inconsistent schedule of being a 5th starter.
I would do the same thing with Ray. Let him finish the season in Toledo, give him a slot in the pen next season and move him into the rotation in 2016. But, most likely the Tigers will give him a shot to win the 5th starter job next season, assuming Scherzer walks.