Robbie Ray, the highlight of the so called "one-sided" Doug Fister trade this offseason, has looked sharp over his first 2 MLB starts. His first start was thoroughly detailed by Fangraphs last week. He had good command of his fastball which touched 93-94 mph. His change-up looked "OK" and the curveball is clearly a work in progress. But, there is definitely potential as highlighted by the GIF below:
Against the Astros, he struck out five, only walked one, and gave up a single earned run en route to his first MLB victory. Today, he looked good again against the Twins. Although he got behind many batters, he showed composure working out of a few jams and pitched a solid six innings. In addition, he picked off a good base-runner in Aaron Hicks, showing a skill set we did not see with the last highly touted starting pitcher in this organization.
Yes, these first two starts were against the Astros and the Twins. The Astros were the worst team in baseball last year and will almost certainly earn that distinction again this year. They rank #25/30 in MLB offense (84 wRC+) and own the highest strikeout rate in the American League (23.6%). The Twins are no world beaters, but they might not be as bad as you think. They rank # 14/30 in MLB offense (97 wRC+) and loaded the lineup with seven right-handed batters (a few switch hitters in there) against Ray.
At the least, he has shown that he is capable of being a solid back end (#4 or #5) pitcher. There is little to gain by sending him back to AAA when Anibel Sanchez returns from the DL later this week. Other teams may be motivated to avoid the consequences of "Super-2" players, but Mike Illitch has deep enough pockets and this team has not been afraid to promote its prospects when they are ready for "The Show" (see: Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, Nick Castellanos).
With Sanchez back, the Tigers again have six qualified starting pitchers. The title of this article begs a difficult question that is inherently easy to answer. If Ray is in the rotation, who moves to the bullpen: Drew Smyly.
Smyly was excellent out of the bullpen last year as an "Old School Relief Ace." Although he is a LHP, he is far from a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY). Although his splits from 2013 do favor his performance against lefties (8.91 K/9, 1.57 B/9, 1.97 FIP, 2.94 xFIP,) he was still excellent against righties (10.15 K/9, 2.38 BB/9, 2.59 FIP, 3.03 xFIP). With 1.9 fWAR, he was the 9th most valuable reliever in baseball last year (only trailing Uehara, Holland, Melancon, Nathan, Kimbrel, Jansen, Rosenthal, and Nate Jones). This is in stark contrast to the current LHP in the Tigers' bullpen: Phil Coke and Ian Krol.
I've chronicled my comprehensive feelings on Phil Coke in the past, but his problems have only worsened. His numbers against RHP are worse than ever before as they've slashed a .368/.429/.611 line against him (career vs. RHP is .292/.374/.442). But this year, he can't even pitch to lefties as they've mashed a .368/.400/.684 line against him (career vs. LHP is .239/.297/.357). This is like facing Miguel Cabrera every time he toes the rubber.
Ian Krol has not been much better. He does sport a nifty 2.53 ERA, but it's probably not sustainable due to a .194 BABIP and 100% strand rate. In addition, he's had a case of gopheritis, allowing 3 HR in just 10.2 IP. Although he has similar problems against righties (.286/.286/.667), he has held his own against lefties (.143/.182/.333). However, as teams get smarter, they tend to alternate righties and lefties in the lineup order and continue to perfect platooning and pinch-hitting matchups. Even though Krol is the definition of a "LOOGY," some would argue that title no longer exists for those exact reasons. Ian Krol is one of the fortunate ones as he has faced 22 LHB this year against only 21 RHB.
Some would argue that Ray should be the one to move to the bullpen. But he is an unproven bullpen commodity and would probably benefit from throwing as many innings at the major league level as possible. Smyly has shown that he can be utilized as a true weapon out of the bullpen.
Should this happen, start to take a look around the bullpen. Joe Nathan has allowed 0 runs and has struck out 8 over his last 6 appearances and this year's velocity charts are already looking pretty similar to last year's. After a rocky start, Joba Chamberlain (not factoring in today's meltdown) has reclaimed his slider and is actually tied for the 5th most valuable reliever in baseball (0.6 fWAR). Al Alburquerque has improved his fastball and is actually historically better against LHB than against RHB (2.29 FIP vs. LHB, 3.40 FIP vs. RHB). Throw Drew Smyly in the mix, and an incredible weakness just a few weeks ago starts to look like a serious strength.