• First, a deal this early in the off-season wouldn’t have happened if the two sides didn’t hit it off in the way they did after the left-hander was acquired at the trade deadline this summer. Ray quickly grew to trust pitching coach Pete Walker and the information the Blue Jays provided him, while the club became increasingly confident that the 29-year-old will return to his dominant past.
• Second, striking now is akin to the early acquisition of Chase Anderson last winter. It's a foundational add that helps stabilize the pitching staff with some reliable innings, allowing the front office to play out some other scenarios on more stable footing.
This is not a move without risk for the Blue Jays, who have said improving the club’s strike-throwing is an off-season priority only to bring back the big-league leader – by a wide margin – in walks. Ray walked 45 batters in his 51.2 innings between Arizona and Toronto, although he did shave down his base on balls per nine from 9.0 to 6.1 after the trade.
The allure is in the 68 batters he struck out and how that would play if Ray is more consistently in the zone, the way he was during an all-star campaign in 2017 or in the productive but less spectacular campaigns of 2018 and ’19.
Even if Ray is more of the latter – and pivotal in that regard is the work he did with the Blue Jays on returning to his original windup after a change that led to his struggles – he offers plenty to a rotation that currently includes ace Hyun Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Ross Stripling and Nate Pearson.
That, in all likelihood, is far too thin to leapfrog the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees in the American League East over the course of 162 games, which is why Ray’s return can be seen as a foundational add in the way Anderson was last year.
The Blue Jays’ rotation was in far direr a situation then, when Matt Shoemaker and Trent Thornton appeared to be the only two sure bets to start in 2020. Anderson was picked up to raise the floor and create options, something he did during a replacement-level season in which he played catch-up after an oblique injury at summer camp, pitching to a 7.22 ERA in 10 games, seven of them starts, and striking out 38 batters over 33.2 innings.
Ray offers a far higher ceiling, and a potential bullpen weapon if the rotation doesn’t work out, while his $8 million salary is less than the $8.5 million Anderson was due this year and the $9.5 million option the club declined on the right-hander for next year.
The question, then, is what comes next.
Stripling’s versatility gives them the option of pursuing another bounce-back upside play – perhaps someone like Corey Kluber, whom both GM Ross Atkins and president and CEO Mark Shapiro have ties to from Cleveland – or waiting for middle and upper tier markets to develop.
Or, they could switch gears and zero in on one of their needs in the infield or outfield, having a better sense of their pitching situation. Given the internal emphasis on process, the Blue Jays wouldn’t have made this move in isolation of their grander aspirations.
A couple of other points of interest as it relates to Ray:
• Is this deal an indicator that the Blue Jays don’t intend to wait on a market expected to be slow, instead swimming against the industry’s conservative current? There’s a case to be made that being aggressive early might entice players to grab a bird in hand, rather than drag things out in the hopes of a better deal.
• Does the decision by Ray, a father of three, to return despite the uncertainty around where the club will play in 2021 mean the issue won’t be a major factor for the Blue Jays in the market? Familiarity is definitely a factor in this case and it’s only a one-year deal, but that Ray didn’t balk over the issue, and thought enough of the roster to want to return, may play well for the club with other available players.