TORONTO – Under different circumstances, this might have been the day Blue Jays fans showered the defending American League Cy Young winner with applause. This would have been his chance to reconnect with the teammates who played alongside him for two playoff races and maybe answer some questions about how close he came to re-signing in Toronto over the winter.
Instead, Robbie Ray was nowhere to be found Monday when the Seattle Mariners arrived in Toronto for the first of three games against the Blue Jays. His absence prompted some questions and may have answered some others, but a reunion will have to wait until July, when the Blue Jays (and thousands of their fans) will visit Seattle for four games.
Officially, the Mariners offered no explanation given for Ray’s absence. Manager Scott Servais acknowledged that Ray wasn’t in Toronto and noted that he’s expected to pitch in Boston, where Seattle heads next.
This much is clear: anyone entering Canada must now have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, professional athletes included. And to this point Ray has not commented on his vaccination status. Meanwhile, MLB rules state that unvaccinated players will be placed on the restricted list where they’ll receive no pay or service time. But the MLB rules also include a provision that prevents teams from gaining an unfair advantage against the Blue Jays.
Those who have pitched at least four consecutive innings in a game can’t be placed on the restricted list and replaced on the active roster until three days have elapsed. That makes Ray, who pitched six innings Sunday, ineligible. Otherwise, opposing teams could simply time starts strategically and expand their bullpens or benches while in Toronto. It would amount to a mini optional assignment that would help everyone but the Blue Jays, so it’s not allowed under MLB rules (a National Interest Exemption allowed unvaccinated players to play in Canada in 2021, but has since expired).
Whether that’s what’s happening with the Mariners is not a matter of public record. But while Seattle placed right-hander Drew Steckenrider on the restricted list Monday, there was no such move made for Ray. Practically speaking, that means the Mariners are on equal footing with the Blue Jays. And Ray, who signed a five-year, $115 million deal last winter, will continue to earn his full salary ($346,153 over the next three days for anyone keeping track).
It’s probably for the best that the struggling Blue Jays lineup won’t have to face Ray, who led the American League with 248 strikeouts and a 2.84 ERA last year. When he’s on, the left-hander’s fastball-slider combination can be devastating.
“Consistency,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo recalled. “I remember he was always the same guy and he threw strikes with all his pitches. When he pitched, the whole team felt ‘we’ve got a chance to win today. We’ve got Robbie Ray.’”
“The rest is history,” Montoyo concluded. “He was really good.”
So far this year, the results have been middling for Ray, who has a 4.62 ERA through eight starts with an American League-leading 18 walks. Still, from the Mariners’ perspective there’s been value in having someone who can haul innings and miss bats.
“He’s meant a lot,” Servais said. “I know he’s not having the type of numerical season he had last year, but the stuff’s still very good. I think he had 26 or 27 swings and misses on his stuff yesterday. He’s just had that one bad inning that’s affected each outing, but he’s given us a chance to win almost every time he’s been out there and he pitches six innings or more consistently. I don’t know a manager alive that won’t take that.”
Of course Montoyo could say the same about Kevin Gausman, who has pitched like an ace since signing a similar five-year, $110 million deal in Toronto. It’ll be a while before anyone can say which of those deals turns out better, but the Blue Jays have reason to be thrilled with the early returns from Gausman, who has outperformed Ray by a wide margin with a 2.40 ERA and 54 strikeouts compared to two walks.
Regardless of whether Ray is vaccinated, regardless of how seriously the Blue Jays pursued him over the winter, there will be tough decisions ahead for the Toronto front office as it looks to augment this roster over the summer.
That’s true for all contending teams, but it’s especially significant here. Most of the time a team arrives in Toronto, a player or two has ended up on the restricted list. But those teams can still replace anyone on the restricted list before resuming as usual a few days later. For the Blue Jays, unvaccinated players are basically non-starters as long as the current travel restrictions exist, a challenge that makes their available player pool the smallest in MLB.