The never-ending cycle of offseason rumors continues into the new year, with Robbie Ray of the Arizona Diamondbacks as the newest person of interest. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe is reporting that both Houston and Philadelphia are pursuing a trade for the lefty, and their interest in him even gets an adverb in its intensity! Maybe there is something to it after all, if they’re not just “interested”, but “very interested”!
This type of rumor does make sense for the Astros, after all. You can never have too much pitching depth, and the rotation certainly looks thinner after last year. And Ray is just a year removed from an All-Star season. How likely is Ray to reach that peak again? And what might it cost to pry him away from the Diamondbacks?
Looking back, that 2017 season that earned him All-Star honors and even a handful of downballot Cy Young votes looks out of place, and it kind of was a lucky fluke. That 2.89 ERA was mostly driven by a BABIP nearly 50 points lower than his career mark. All of his peripherals were mostly in line with what they were the year before (FIP and xFIP were both within 0.04 of each other), when his ERA was 4.90 thanks of course to a flukishly-high BABIP. You don’t normally see luck balancing itself out that neatly.
Which is all to say that Ray is neither of those extremes, but something more in the middle. In those peak years of 2016 and 2017 (if you go by Fangraphs’ WAR), he finished just a hair over 3.0 Wins Above Replacement, just outside of the top 30 starters in the league both times. That’s maybe a little weak for a top-of-the-rotation ace, but the Astros wouldn’t need him to be that given the presence of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. That’s more than fine for a middle-of-the-rotation piece, though.
In fact, take a look at how Ray stacks up with another middle-of-the-rotation starter. Our mystery man plays for an AL team in a park less favorable to hitters, but they seem pretty comparable:
Robbie Ray vs. Mystery Man
Overall, they’re pretty similar, right? Especially Ray’s 2017 and Mystery Man’s 2018? Ray was a little worse on a rate basis, but had a few extra innings to make up for things. Overall, most of you would probably be fine with either of them, right? For those of you who haven’t figured it out, “???” is actually Charlie Morton, so Ray could pretty clearly fit into the 2019 Astros’ plans easily.
The three biggest differences, since both are under contract for two more years, are that Ray (1) is facing arbitration rather than free agency, and therefore cheaper; (2) is eight years younger than Morton; and (3) had some injury problems in 2018. Ray struggled in April then missed nearly two months last year with an oblique injury, but seemed fine upon his return to rotation. Given that his only other DL time since being called up was due to a concussion from a freak line drive off of his head back in 2017, he’s probably not a substantially higher injury risk than any other pitcher.
All of that brings us to the second question: would the Diamondbacks be willing to trade Robbie? Arizona apparently doesn’t consider him to be on the trading block, according to that Cafardo rumor, but it’s also not hard to see why the team might be open to dealing him. They’ve already traded away their top hitter Paul Goldschmidt, and lost their ace Patrick Corbin to free agency. They’re also shopping Zack Greinke to help cut salary, A.J. Pollock and Clay Buchholz are both free agents at the moment and seem unlikely to return, and Daniel Descalso has already signed with the Cubs.
Even without finding a trade partner for Greinke, that’s half of Arizona’s top ten players by WAR in 2018 likely gone by the start of 2019. Considering that they were only an 82-80 team to begin with, it seems fair to characterize 2019 as a rebuilding year for them. Ray is technically under contract through 2020, but he could probably be had for the right package of prospects given that that’s it’s not a sure thing that they’ll be in the playoff picture immediately after this year.
What might that package look like? That’s a little harder to say. There haven’t been a lot of trades for starters yet this winter, with so many free agents still left, so there’s not a lot to look at. James Paxton is the only real comparison at the moment, and there are some similarities there (most notably, both have two years of arbitration remaining). Justus Sheffield headlined the three-player return for Paxton, and both MLB.com and Fangraphs seem to have him somewhere around the 30th-best prospect in the minors. The other two players in the deal didn’t even make the Mariners’ top 10, according the MLB.com, which is especially rough given Seattle’s relatively weak system.
Even if Ray was as good as Paxton, Forrest Whitley or Kyle Tucker would clearly be too much to demand, but Paxton is also noticeably better than Ray. Paxton also hasn’t racked up large innings totals, but he’s still managed a FIP below 3.25 and more than 3.5 WAR each of the last three seasons. That means the package for Ray likely starts even lower than “a top-30 prospect and change”.
A package centered around one or two of Houston’s top ten prospects still seems like the most plausible starting point in discussion, but the top two or three players in the system are basically safe. The biggest impediment I can imagine right now would be if the Diamondbacks are adamant about holding onto him in the hopes he improves his value for a mid-season deal beyond “two middle-to-back-end top-ten types”, but that strategy is not without its own risks.
If you’re the type that regrets the team missing out on bringing back Charlie Morton, Robbie Ray wouldn’t be the worst replacement. Should the Diamondbacks decide to discuss dealing him, the cost probably wouldn’t drain the farm system, and he could eat some quality innings in the middle of the Astros’ rotation. He might not be the flashiest addition the team could make, but there’s still value there.
Should the Astros try and trade for Robbie Ray?
This poll is closed
Only as a fallback