May 1, 2014
The Situation: When Anibal Sanchez went on the disabled list with a finger laceration, the Tigers knew they would need another starter on May 6. The speculation as to who that starter would be ended when Detroit announced that the headliner in the Doug Fister trade, Robbie Ray, would take the bump next Tuesday in place of Sanchez.
Background: Ray made slow and steady progress as he moved through the Nationals’ system after being popped in the 12th round and signed for nearly $800,000 in 2010. Ray’s breakout came after a return trip to the High-A Carolina League in 2013. After posting a 6.56 ERA in 21 starts (22 appearances) at High-A in 2012, Ray returned to notch a 3.11 ERA in 16 starts before he was promoted to Double-A in the second half. In 11 Eastern League starts, Ray posted a 3.72 ERA and struck out better than a batter per inning. He was dealt to the Tigers as the headline piece of the package in the Doug Fister trade last winter and has dominated in five Triple-A starts this season.
Scouting Report: It’s hard not to like Ray the second he steps on the mound, thanks to a lean, athletic build that exhibits some strength. He backs up the physical presence with an easy delivery that he has begun to repeat with more consistency.
Ray’s fastball is his calling card, sitting in the 92-93 mph range so far this season and reaching as high as 97 mph according to multiple scouts in the stands in Toledo this year. His fastball jumps out of his hand and gets on hitters very quickly, inducing late swings and leaving hitters unable to square his primary offering.
The progress Ray has made with his changeup is notable. He trusts the pitch much more now than he did even last year, and as a result he throws the pitch with better arm speed and more overall conviction. The changeup sits in the low-80s, giving it plenty of velocity separation from his fastball, which keeps hitters off balance and makes it an average complementary pitch. Ray could stand to command the change with more regularity, but that command should come with additional polish.
Ray’s slurvy breaking ball lags behind his other two pitches, working in a decidedly below-average bracket much of the time. He will flash the occasional average breaker with tighter spin and more consistent short break, and those flashes have increased in frequency this year, allowing him to change the look he’s giving hitters.
Even though he is a quality athlete and has walked only five batters in over 28 innings so far this season, Ray must improve the command of his fastball within the strike zone. All too often he leaves his fastball in hittable parts of the zone, and major-league hitters will feast on those mistakes. With minor refinements to his command and control, Ray could be ready to take off at the MLB level.
All told, Ray has a no. 3 ceiling and will almost certainly settle into a big league rotation as a quality no. 4 starter. The ultimate development of his breaking ball and command will determine whether he works at the higher end of that range.
Immediate Big-League Future: Ray has been fantastic so far this season in Triple-A, but that doesn’t mean he is ready to step into an MLB rotation and shut down the competition. He will have stretches of success as well as outings when his command or breaking ball are off just enough that hitters can pound out hits and pick up runs. Ray will be a hit-or-miss talent in this first MLB trial, but he should improve with each outing and could ultimately fill an important role for the Tigers should a starter miss significant time. —Mark Anderson
Fantasy Impact: While the future looks bright for Ray, the present is murkier in terms of fantasy value. This appears to be a spot start for the young left-hander, and while he has enough of an arsenal to experience immediate success, prolonged exposure to big-league hitting would likely result in a fair amount of bumps and bruises. If you’re a risk taker, remember that Ray’s first start will be against the Astros, with a second start (assuming four days of rest) coming against the Twins, both at home.
Those are good matchups, but starting a pitcher on his debut is always a risk, because of excitement, nerves, and other complications that may crop up. If Ray were assured of a regular role in the rotation, he’d be worth grabbing in all leagues 12 teams or deeper. As it is, he’s a worthwhile streaming option thanks to the opponents he’s facing, but there just isn’t enough stability to his role to consider dropping anyone of value for him. —Craig Goldstein
Mark Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @ProspectMark