Aside from manager Brad Ausmus, Robbie Ray might have the most thankless job in Detroit. The centerpiece of the trade that sent Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals, Ray is going to be held to a very high standard throughout his Tigers career. Fans will have trouble recognizing his value, even if he puts up more WAR than Fister did in Detroit.
So it comes as no surprise that people were unhappy when he failed to exceed expectations in 2014.
Prior to arriving in Detroit, Ray logged 142 total innings in the Nationals' organization in 2013. He spent most of the year at Advanced-A Potomac, where he allowed a 3.11 ERA and 3.97 FIP in 84 innings. He made the jump to Double-A Harrisburg in July and closed out the season with a 3.72 ERA and 3.55 FIP in 58 innings. Overall, he tallied 160 strikeouts -- over a batter per inning at either level -- to 62 walks. This was a solid improvement from 2012, when he gave up a 6.56 ERA in 105 2/3 innings at Potomac.
Then, the trade happened. Fister became a Nat, Ray became a Tiger, and we fumed for four months. End of trade discussion.
The Tigers sent Ray to Triple-A Toledo to begin the season, which was somewhat of a surprise. Ray silenced the critics early on, however, posting a 1.57 ERA with 21 strikeouts to five walks in his first six outings.
Then, the shuttling began. Ray was called up to the majors to fill in for an injured Anibal Sanchez, and his first two outings went well. He held the Houston Astros to a run in 5 1/3 innings in his MLB debut (picking up a win in the process), then followed that up with six shutout innings against the Minnesota Twins five days later. He also worked a scoreless relief appearance against the Boston Red Sox when the team juggled the rotation. Through his first 12 big league innings, he had allowed one run. Not bad for a guy who was in A-ball last season, right?
Things changed quickly. Ray was shelled by the Texas Rangers in his next start, allowing seven runs on nine hits in 3 1/3 innings. He was demoted soon after when Sanchez came off the DL, but things did not get much better back in the minors. Ray struggled with his command for the next couple months, allowing 35 walks in 67 1/3 innings. He only struck out 50 batters during that stretch, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just 1.43. This was reflected in Ray's other numbers, as he allowed a 4.63 ERA and .812 OPS against.
Despite the struggles, the Tigers called him up again when they needed another starting pitcher in August. Ray made another trio of starts at the MLB level, following a similar pattern to his first go-round. He gave up four runs in five innings in both of the first two starts, losses in which the Tigers' offense scored a combined three runs. Then, Ray had his worst start of the year, a 1 1/3 inning, six run fiasco against the Minnesota Twins. The Tigers would eventually go on to lose that game 20-6, and Ray was demoted again.
He only got one more start in the minors after that, and it did not go well. He gave up seven runs -- one of three times he did that across both levels -- and walked four more batters. This would not be the end of his struggles, though. Ray gave up four more runs in a relief appearance against the Twins on September 27th. This was his last outing of the year for the Tigers, though he is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League to get a few more innings under his belt.
Given where he started -- he only had 58 innings at Double-A under his belt before he was traded to the Tigers -- Ray's underwhelming performance in 2014 wasn't surprising. His Triple-A numbers leave something to be desired, and would have lowered his grade if I factored them in. However, a pair of solid MLB starts were overshadowed by two meltdown outings and the weight of crushing expectations from a bitter fanbase. Will he get better? I hope so. But let's hold off before we consider 2014 a "disappointment" for the young lefty.