Detroit Tigers: is Robbie Ray ready?

When it comes to the Detroit Tigers it seems like an endless sea of unsettling questions. This strikes me as odd given that most days over the past several seasons the Tigers have occupied primarily one spot in the standings: first place.

But alas, until the boys from Motown bring home that elusive World Series championship, the fans continue to be overcome by annual feelings of ‘what could have been’. The roster makeover that the Tigers have undergone since falling to the Red Sox in the ALCS last fall has been the equivalent of an adrenaline shot to a passionate fan base.

And now that Anibal Sanchez has hit the DL, it brings a thought I had a few weeks ago front and center: Would the Tigers be better served with prospect Robbie Ray in the rotation and Drew Smyly back in the bullpen? I covered this idea in depth here, so click that link if you want more on the topic.

A few short weeks ago it was a question of who among Ray, Duane Below, Drew VerHagen, and Kyle Lobstein was the next man up. Now it’s more a question of when do they give Ray the nod.

Robbie Ray

Robbie Ray

Ray, perhaps more than any other Tigers prospect, is under the microscope. He was the prized return in the highly controversial Doug Fister trade and if things break right once he invades the big league roster then fans will once again hail GM Dave Dombrowski a genius.

The Tigers have a fairly limited group of prospects that are on the radar. Some have performed admirably (especially middle infielders Hernan Perez and Eugenio Suarez as well as starter Jake Thompson) while a host of others have struggled out of the gate (Daniel Fields, Steven Moya, Kyle Lobstein, Drew VerHagen). But one name has outshined them all as of this Monday morning and that’s Robbie Ray.

And the Sanchez injury could be a convenient opportunity for the Tigers to see what Ray can do in the bigs. A spot start early next week at home against Houston appears available and would time out well with Ray’s current schedule.

Ray has four starts under his belt in 2014, which happen to be the only four starts of his career above AA ball. He’ll take the mound again tonight for the Toledo Mud Hens. So far Ray is 2-2 with a 1.93 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. He has given up 20 hits and just five walks through his first 23.1 innings of work while striking out 16.

At age 22, and pitching the best baseball of his life, it’s possible that Dombrowski yanked this talented lefty away from his original organization at just the right time.

The Tigers’ GM has a long and impressive track record of pulling major leaguers over to the Tigers for minor league talent that hasn’t exactly made the Tigers pay the price. What he doesn’t boast since joining the Tigers’ front office is a detailed resume of prospects acquired via trade that then turn into impact players. Austin Jackson is probably the closest thing to it but he was at the end of his minor league road anyhow.

With Ray, it was more of a speculative gamble. So far, so good. And if Ray dominates yet again tonight the question then becomes: how many more great starts will it take for the Tigers to re-think their pitching staff roadmap of 2014?

Sanchez will be back and don’t forget that he was virtually the best pitcher in the American League after returning from the disabled list last year. He’ll be fine as will Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello.

Smyly, in whatever role he is assigned, will be solid as well. But ask yourself this: How big of a drop-off would there be as a #5 starter from Smyly to Ray?

My suspicion is that it wouldn’t be dramatic. What would be dramatic however is the reinsertion of Smyly back into the bullpen.

The point is quite simply that Ray is really close to being ready, if he’s not already, and the Tigers need every passable arm they can get on the 25-man roster to make Brad Ausmus’ end of game decision-making less stressful.

A few more starts like his last one (8.1 IP, no runs, 4 hits, 1 walk, 7 K’s) and Ray might just force the Tigers’ hand.

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  • Joe White

    5 more scoreless innings for Ray last night guys. I maintain: play your best players.

  • Jim Rohlman

    ditto to what Doug said…

  • Vince in MN

    With Sanchez on the DL, there is no question that Smyly stays in the rotation. He is now our No. 4. Give Ray a shot while Sanchez is out and eventually when the rain outs have to be made up we are going to need a 6th starter and he can be called on then also if his tryout (2-3 starts) works out. Of course he will have to be added to the 40-man roster, but if he continues to perform well at Toledo he would eventually anyway. The 40-man is full, so who do you drop? This is the perfect time to DFA Coke, whose expiration date is way past due. It is taking somewhat of a chance of course, but this could turn out to be the silver lining in the cloud of Sanchez’ injury.

  • ScottPeceny

    I love Smyly back in the Pen. Give the kid a shot!

  • burrwick

    Ray, if he earns and continues to progress, should get spot starts when a starter is needed, otherwise let him continue to grow and gain confidence at Toledo. Smily should stay in the rotation in anticipation of the departure of Scherzer next season when Ray (hopefully) joins the rotation full time with Smily.