Robbie Ray wasn't ready to pitch in the big leagues in 2014. He faked it for a couple of starts, allowing one run in 11 1/3 combined innings against the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros in May, but by September the cat was out of the bag. He had an 8.16 ERA and a 1.88 WHIP in 28 2/3 innings. His 5.23 FIP and 4.78 SIERA suggest that he was maybe a bit unlucky, but still nothing special.
This isn't Ray's fault, though. Drafted out of high school in 2010, Ray had just 58 innings at the Double A level heading into the 2014 season. The Tigers promoted him aggressively, as they are wont to do. Injuries and a thin farm system forced him into the fray too early. His command needed work. His breaking ball needed work. Hell, his facial hair needed work. But he was asked to get big league outs before he was ready. He was set up to fail.
Instead of being patient with Ray, the Tigers hit 'fast forward' by acquiring right-hander Shane Greene. Nearly three years older, Greene's debut season was much more impressive. He had a 3.78 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. He struck out over a batter per inning. He even passed the eye test, shutting down the Tigers for eight scoreless innings in an August 7th matchup. Was it a bit lucky? Maybe. But one thing was clear: Shane Greene is ready to be an MLB pitcher right now.
This trade wasn't about who is better. Scouts, analysts, and fans will all offer up opinions, but there is no consensus. Some like Greene's arsenal and command better. Some like Ray's fastball and upside. Dave Dombrowski even said as much when he admitted that the Diamondbacks targeted Ray during their trade negotiations. "He has the most upside of that group," Dombrowski said, referring to the other starters in the high minors of their organization. This wasn't a matter of the Tigers being the lone team infatuated with Ray, either.
Asked Dave Dombrowski if Robbie Ray was the first #Tigers player the Diamondbacks asked for. He hesitated a bit, then said "yes."— Tony Paul (@TonyPaul1984) December 5, 2014
Dombrowski's entire press conference shed some light on the trade negotiations, but he summed up the reason for the deal in one sentence. "[Ray's] a guy we liked a lot, but Shane is a little further along."
'Further along' is nice, in general. 'Further along' for a win now team like the Tigers? That's essential. Picking up Shane Greene gives the Tigers a bonafide number five starter with potential for more. Former teammate Brandon McCarthy has raved about his stuff on multiple occasions, and Yankees fans were hesitant to let him go for the same reason. Pinstripe Alley's Andrew Mearns chimed in via email with a quick summary yesterday.
I really liked him, and even though his MLB success was small sample size and seemed to go in the face of lesser minor league numbers, I could totally see him lasting in the majors for some time as a back-end rotation starter despite being a late bloomer. I'm fine with giving him up for Didi Gregorius since the Yankees badly need a shortstop and Didi has potential, but the fact that many Yankees fans are reluctant to see him go should tell you something about how much of an impression he made in just about half a season.
Even if you prefer one starter over the other -- I came away impressed with Greene in the couple starts of his I watched last year -- the timing of this move is what makes it a win for the Tigers. With Ray still working out the kinks, paying a small fee (both literally and figuratively) in Domingo Leyba to get a guy ready to contribute immediately is the right move.
Now, how about that bullpen, Dave?