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Gaither Continuing Unlikely Rise in AFL

After a taxing amateur and early professional career held back by bad luck, Gaither has proven his stuff plays in the upper minors.

AZ Fall League: Mesa Solar Sox at Surprise Saguaros Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

DFW native Ray Gaither’s career in baseball got off to an auspicious start- pitching for Coppell High School, the young righty stood out for his physicality, feel for spin and budding velocity, and got plenty of attention from scouts from an early stage. He decided to stay at home for college, joining Dallas Baptist, who rated him highly and thrust him right into the rotation as a freshman in 2017. He showed promise, striking out a respectable 68 batters in 75.2 IP, but was hit hard and needed to improve his strike throwing, allowing 11 HR and walking 40 en route to a 5.11 ERA.

Gaither would start the 2018 season in DBU’s bullpen, but his season would end after just two appearances due to an injury- the first in a string of unfortunate breaks that would characterize his next few seasons. He qualified for a redshirt and returned to the pen late in the 2019 season, but was only able to compile 6.2 innings before season’s end. It looked as though he was back on track in the lead up to 2020- he entered the season fully healthy, and was slated for a Friday starter role. He made four successful starts to open the year, striking out 26 against 9 walks in 20.1 innings, and looked to be regaining his footing as a prospect, but as we all know the season was shut down shortly thereafter, halting his momentum again.

He returned to DBU for a fifth season in 2021, but had an up and down campaign that saw him bounce between rotation and bullpen, struggling at times with strike throwing. It was a disappointing end to his college career, but the Astros were nonetheless interested in his stuff profile and gave him a UDFA contract, easing him into action with a brief debut at the tail end of that minor league season. He performed well, compiling a 3.95 ERA across 11 relief appearances at 3 different levels, striking out 15 against 6 walks. He would begin 2022 with High-A Asheville, and was performing quite well at the level before losing yet another long stretch to a shoulder injury, and was only able to throw a total of 41.1 IP for the season, though his production was encouraging with 52 strikeouts against 21 walks.

To that point in his career, Gaither was still making starts and throwing longer outings out of the pen, but after the latest in his long string of injuries, he was shifted to single inning work entering 2023, which he opened with Double-A Corpus Christi, and he managed to maintain his health in that role. He did struggle with his strike throwing, but it’s sensible to chalk some of that up to a more max-effort approach that most pitchers adopt when moving to short relief.

Gaither will open the 2024 season at age 26, but should not be written off as a big league prospect. While his minor league production has been more solid than outstanding, he has more room to improve his game than many younger prospects thanks to his limited innings and oft-interrupted rhythm. His stuff is of major league quality, and he has added velocity gradually throughout his career despite the injuries, regularly getting into the mid-90s with good shape on his fastball. He also has a broad secondary arsenal, featuring a cutter as well as two viable breaking balls. We may see him winnow down his arsenal a bit as he continues to adapt to short work, but thus far his ability to mix and match has been an asset. If he can solidify his strike throwing, he should be a viable middle relief option in short order.