The Diamondbacks and much-maligned former general manager Dave Stewart made a shrewd pickup six years ago when they acquired left-hander Robbie Ray from the Tigers in a three-team trade. Ray has been one of the most productive players on Arizona’s roster since then, but his time in the desert may be nearing an end. Regardless of whether a season takes place, the soon-to-be 29-year-old Ray may choose to test the free-agent market in the winter, when he’d rank near the top of the list of available starters.
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The most appealing thing about Ray is that he fans hitters in droves, having struck out 11-plus batters per nine in four straight seasons. He ranked third in that category last year with 12.13 K/9, trailing only now-$324MM man Gerrit Cole and former teammate Max Scherzer. Problem is that Ray hasn’t kept runs off the board at elite rates like Cole and Scherzer have, nor has he been the innings-eating workhorse along their lines. Ray’s the owner of a lifetime 4.11 ERA/3.97 FIP and has never reached the 175-frame mark in a season.
Most recently, Ray pitched to a 4.34 ERA/4.29 FIP across 174 1/3 innings in 2019. That’s not ace-like production, but there’s nothing wrong with it at all, and the Diamondbacks might soon have to find a way to replace it. They’ve at least pondered it, as Ray has been the subject of countless trade rumors over the past couple seasons. No offer has gotten Arizona to bite thus far, though, and after a strong 85-win effort last year, the club doesn’t seem prepared to part with Ray in the near future. Rather, the Diamonbacks made a serious effort to improve their rotation in the offseason by signing ex-Giant Madison Bumgarner to a five-year, $85MM pact. The belief then was that there would be a season, and the hope was that Ray, Bumgarner, Luke Weaver, Zac Gallen and Mike Leake would form a tremendous starting five.
The potential is certainly there for the D-backs’ rotation to be a smash success in 2020. But it may well end up as Ray’s last season with the club. The same goes for Leake, who has an $18MM option or a $5MM buyout for 2021. A rotation devoid of Ray and Leake would still have a nice trio in Bumgarner, Weaver and Gallen, but what of the other two spots? Arizona just spent pretty big on Bumgarner, so maybe it would shop at the high end of the market again for someone like old friend Trevor Bauer, Jake Odorizzi, Marcus Stroman, Masahiro Tanaka, Mike Minor, James Paxton or Jose Quintana. Otherwise, at the mid- and lower-tier levels of free agency, there should be quite a few somewhat intriguing arms available. You also can’t discount the trade market, where Matthew Boyd, Jon Gray and Chris Archer are some of the hurlers who could soon be available.
As far as in-house options go, Arizona doesn’t appear to be loaded with immediate solutions. The Diamondbacks could keep Merrill Kelly for $4.25MM, but he may be a buyout candidate ($500K) after producing mediocre results in 2019. The team does have several other choices who have either pitched in the majors or are almost ready for MLB (Jon Duplantier, Taylor Clarke, Taylor Widener, J.B. Bukauskas and Corbin Martin are some examples), though nobody there has a proven track record of racking up outs at the game’s highest level.
If you’re the D-backs, one of the many reasons you’re hoping a season occurs is so what looks like a very good rotation can help you break a two-year playoff drought. But that rotation looks as if it will weaken soon, largely on account of Ray’s pending free agency.