When Dave Dombrowski dumped Doug Fister for Robbie Ray, Ian Krol, and Steve Lombardozzi, the baseball world collectively scratched its head. Dombrowski has a long history of good trades -- including poaching Fister from Seattle -- and at first glance this just did not make sense. Doug Fister had established himself as a well-above-average starting pitcher. Robbie Ray had barely cracked the top 100 prospect list. Ian Krol had pitched about 30 mediocre innings above Double A. Steve Lombardozzi was not likely worth a roster spot.
The only way this made sense was if the Tigers knew something about Robbie Ray that the rest of the baseball world did not. Maybe they knew he had pitched in 2013 with some nagging injury that would be healed in 2014. Maybe there was an easy mechanical fix to give him a breaking ball.
The problem with this wishful thinking was that if the Tigers knew Ray was much more valuable than everyone else, they would not have had to trade so much value to get him. They could have packaged an overvalued prospect or two instead of a well-established starting pitcher. Dave Dombrowski seems to have a list of just such prospects available for trade at all times.
No, the Ray trade was much more about other needs of the Tigers than it was about getting value for Fister. And yet we wanted to trust that Ray would pan out. Lest we forget, for a week there was a ray of hope.
The Tigers needed a rotation spot filled in May when Anibal Sanchez was injured. Ray's debut against Houston on May 6 resulted in 5 1/3 innings, five strikeouts, five hits, and only one earned run. He was awarded the win.
His second start was even better, but resulted in a no decision: six innings, four hits, no runs.
His third appearance was only two-thirds of an inning, but he earned the win in relief. Perhaps he could be a useful spot starter during the year, and an effective left-handed bullpen weapon in the playoffs? It could keep his innings low and reduce the strain on the rookie's arm.
But no. The rest of the season resulted in 25 earned runs in under 17 innings. His final start was an unforgettable inning and a third of six runs. In Minnesota, no less.
Robbie's performance in Triple A was not promising either. He pitched 100 innings in 20 games with an ERA of 4.22, and WHIP of 1.50. Disconcertingly, his strikeout rate fell from over ten per nine innings in 2013 to just 6.7.
Robbie Ray's advocates can point out that Doug Fister's numbers were very similar in Double A, which he pitched at ages 23 and 24. But Doug Fister is the exception.
Ray did pitch well in the Arizona Fall League, but left after only 11 innings to get married. His wife, Taylor, is from West Michigan. Ray is from Tennessee, but somehow he knew where to look. Which leads me to believe he will have a more effective career as a scout.
Robbie Ray is young, just 23 years old in the 2015 season. He could still become a serviceable big league pitcher, but the odds are long. The Tigers easily have ten arms with more promise than Ray's. They did not give up too soon, but flipped him while he still had value. Ironically, that value may be more that he is connected in some minds with Doug Fister than a representation of his true talent.