If there’s one constant for every team, every offseason, it’s that there’s a scramble for elite pitching. Every team needs it, too few teams have it, and even if a team does have it, you always want more.
The Yankees’ pitching was pretty decent in 2021, featuring Cy Young runner up Gerrit Cole having an overall excellent season, a surprisingly great bullpen, and unexpected performances from the likes of Nestor Cortes, Jr., but they would be wise not to sit on their heels going into 2022. Robbie Ray, near-unanimous Cy Young winner in 2021, is set to be one of the hottest free agents on the market this offseason, and the Yankees will be one of many teams taking a hard look.
Ray was a twelfth-round, 2010 Washington Nationals draftee, foregoing a commitment to the University of Arkansas to sign towards the end of that year’s minor league season. He spent three full seasons in the Nationals’ minor league system, pitching capably in 2011 with the Hagerstown Suns before struggling in his age-20 season in High-A. After an offseason mechanical adjustment and High-A success in the first half of the 2013 season, the Nationals promoted him to Double-A before trading him to Detroit in the ‘13-’14 offseason.
Ray bounced between Triple-A and the Tigers’ major league squad in 2014, struggling to a 8.14 ERA in six major league starts that year. He was a piece in the three-team trade that notably sent Didi Gregorius to the Yankees that offseason. He landed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and despite being assigned to Triple-A to begin the 2015 season wound up making 23 major league starts that year to begin his career as a full time big league starter.
I briefly profiled the 30-year-old Ray back in September when the Blue Jays came to New York for a late season series. He has a somewhat atypical profile for a reigning Cy Young winner, in that he has not actually been that good throughout his career. Before 2021, his major outlier seasons were 2017, when he went 15-5 with a 2.89 ERA and was named an All-Star, and 2020, when he combined for a 6.62 ERA in 11 starts between the Diamondbacks and the Blue Jays.
Beyond those two years he was consistently pretty average, with an ERA+ hovering generally just north of 100, which made his 2021 domination that much more of a surprise. Despite a somewhat floundering final start against the Yankees, Ray finished the season first in the AL in ERA (2.48), innings (193.1), strikeouts (248), and WHIP (1.048), and garnered 29 of 30 first place votes in the Cy Young race. The question heading into 2022 will be if Ray’s excellent season was a fluke, or whether the changes he made to his pitching profile last year will carry through a mid-career resurgence.
Ray, a fastball pitcher who averages just under 95mph on his four-seamer, has always been a successful strikeout pitcher – his career mark of 11.2 strikeouts per 9 innings is tops all time among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings. Where he really seemed to turn a corner last season is in his overall control; in 2020, he walked 7.8 batters per 9, and in 2021, he improved to a career-low 2.4 rate. If he can maintain 2021 levels of control, he should be a decent bet to turn in several more successful seasons (although perhaps not quite as dominant as his 2021) and has the potential to be a strong asset to most rotations.
Outside of a two month IL stint in 2018 courtesy of a strained right oblique, Ray has not missed significant time throughout his career with injury and only has a few injured list visits scattered among his eight years in the majors. As a free agent he doesn’t appear to be a huge injury risk, and he’s still relatively young, but the fact that he’s a velocity-reliant pitcher entering his 30s may give some teams pause.
FanGraphs Median Crowdsource: 4 yrs, $72 million
MLB Trade Rumors: 5 yrs, $130 million
Does he make sense for the Yankees?
It depends on what the Yankees’ overall plan with regards to budget and luxury tax concerns. No recent reports have linked the Yankees to Ray, although it is relatively early in the offseason. At the most basic level, adding more proven pitching is something the Yankees should prioritize this offseason, as the rotation behind Gerrit Cole is somewhat haphazard with Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery, and Jameson Taillon all with significant injury histories.
I’m not sure if Ray is that guy, though. Coming off a career year, he’s going to command one of the top contracts of this offseason, and the Yankees just have not seemed willing to shell out that kind of money in recent years in most circumstances. This isn’t a situation like the one that led the Yankees to commit $324 million to Gerrit Cole two offseasons ago after multiple elite seasons in Houston; Ray’s track record is spotty, and I don’t necessarily see the Yankees tying up $20 million a year in a guy who could turn back into a pumpkin.
I’m sure the Yankees and Ray will have at least some cursory conversation this offseason, and at the right price anything could happen. Overall, however, I don’t see Ray and the Yankees being a match this offseason, although they’d be glad to see him move out of the AL East.