The Toronto Blue Jays should be considering extending Robbie Ra at the end of this season. He’s earned it.
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The Toronto Blue Jays took a gamble last November when they signed Robbie Ray for the 2021 season and he has given every reason to be considered a longer term piece for them. After trading for him in the shortened 2020 season, they were able to work on him walking the entire league and they must have liked the results since they wasted absolutely no time signing him for $8M, a sum that has seemed like a bargain thus far.
2020 was a rough one for Ray. He began in Arizona, walking everyone and their dog in his 31 innings pitched. His BB/9 was 9.00 (BB% of 20.1%). Always a strike out guy, his walk numbers were troubling to say the least. However, Toronto, wanting to increase its team strike throwing felt like he was worth a flier (and Travis Bergen, who they later got back). His time in Toronto in 2020 only amounted to 20.2 IP, but it is the time off the field, with pitching coach, Pete Walker that must have had an impact on both the player and the organization. A deal for the 2021 season came together rather quickly.
So far in 2021 both sides have to be thrilled with the result of their agreement. Ray has gone 8-5 with a 3.12 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 1.5 fWAR. Digging a bit deeper, he has a K% of 31.3%, a much improved BB% of 6.2%, which is a career low. He’s holding batters to a .215 average and a career low OPS of 0.695. He’s giving up less hard contact than he has in years and producing almost double the ground ball rate of last year. In short, he’s an improved pitcher, putting up surplus value at this point.
A while back, Blue Jays President, Mark Shapiro, told me that a good estimate for value for a win above replacement is $9M. Obviously, in times of close competition, where every win means more, the value may be higher and it could be lower in a rebuilding year. But, if we look at the case of Ray signing last November, he had put up -0.4 fWAR and was projected to put up a full win this season. The fact that he jumped on $8M likely reflected the belief that he had started turning a corner and would be in a prime position the following year.
So, here we are. If you look at the landscape of the Blue Jays’ rotation, they absolutely need a starter who can put up similar numbers. Right now, Hyun-Jin Ryu, the question mark that is Nate Pearson, Ross Stripling and Alek Manoah are slated to be back next season. Steven Matz will be a free agent and his results have been enough to make that OK with me. This also doesn’t mention the other arms who would be considered ‘depth’ like Trent Thornton et al. That said, the goal of 2022 should be to make steps forward, so Toronto cannot be happy with this group as is. Ray has to be considered.
But, what would that look like? Maybe we can use something like Lance Lynn‘s recent extension with the White Sox as a starting point. The details are: “guaranteed at least $38 million for the veteran hurler through the 2023 season and will pay him $18.5 million in each of ’22 and ’23, with the Sox holding an option for ’24 worth $18 million and a $1 million buyout.”
As good as Ray’s season has been, Lynn is having an even better one, posting an ERA of 1.94 and 2.5 fWAR. That said, he is 34 years old and Ray is 29. Ray will be entering a relatively deep free agent class at an age that will be much more attractive to teams than Lynn. So, Ray may be more willing to take the chance at free agency to land a deal for more in terms of years and total dollars. We also know that Toronto had to add a 4th year to the offer to Ryu to convince him to sign and he was 32 at the time, so they may be interested in a longer term deal that takes Ray to his mid 30s.
Obviously, a lot of factors and calculations go into this and the Blue Jays’ front office would use their projections, etc to figure out what a potential extension would look like. But, there’s no fun in waiting for that day (if it even comes), so let’s see if we can figure out something that works.
By the end of the season, Ray will be 30. And, Toronto is not likely to do an extension until the end of the season, so we’ll start there. An extension like Lynn’s would take him to age 32, which might be an awkward age to try free agency again, not impossible, but not ideal. Fangraphs says he is projected at 2.4 and 2.3 fWAR in 2022 and 2023, respectively. In order to convince him to avoid free agency, Ray might need something he can’t refuse. Using the $9M base from above, that would mean an annual salary of roughly $22.5M in each of those two years. Can anyone seeing Toronto paying $5oM for just two years of Robbie Ray? That is doubtful.
You can bet that Ray would be looking for at least 3 years and likely 4. So, let’s use a 4 yr offer since Toronto cannot be guaranteed to get any kind of ‘hometown’ discount and will have to offer near the expensive end. Let’s also say that Ray puts up the two projected seasons worth of WAR and two years of half that. That would be 2+2+1+1= 6 fWAR x $9M = $54 M. It’s worth noting that the structure of that deal could look like anything (there could even be an option at the end of it based on innings pitched, etc) so it might be a rabbit hole to try and guess the specifics. That said, a power arm like Ray comes with long term injury risk, so an innings pitched option wouldn’t be surprising.
A 4yr/$54M deal works out to $13.5M AAV, again depending on contract structure, but it gives us an idea of a target from which we can start. We know that Toronto should be looking to be even closer to a long playoff push next year and wins will be more valuable than they’ve been in these parts for years. So, the cost per win is higher. Might they consider $10M or $11M per win, which would bring the total value to $60M-$66M. That is getting into some serious territory, making it something that Ray would have to consider seriously.
The only thing working against Toronto is that the free agent class may seem deep, but it is older and Ray is entering at a time where he looks that much better given his age and his 2021 performance, assuming he continues going the way he is. So, even if they offer something like this, the speed at which he agrees may not resemble that of last year.
We have no way of knowing what the Blue Jays are thinking, whether they want to gamble on Ray to the tune of $60M or whether they would go even higher. At the end of the day, all we can do is think logically about the details we have in front of us. And, based on that, there is a potential deal to be had if Toronto wants to keep Robbie Ray in their uniform long term and it is something they absolutely should be considering.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Shaun Doyle is a long time Blue Jays fan and writer! He decided to put those things together and create Jays From the Couch. Shaun is the host of Jays From the Couch Radio, which is highly ranked in iTunes, and he has appeared on TV and radio spots.