If the Arizona Diamondbacks are going to dangle some starting pitchers on the winter trade market, they can rest easy knowing they at least have some name value to attract interested parties.

There’s Zack Greinke, who needs no introduction. There’s also Shelby Miller, who used to be good. Ditto with Patrick Corbin. Then there’s Taijuan Walker and Archie Bradley, two former top prospects who still have youth on their side.

Interested parties could, however, choose to skip past them and go to the [suppresses urge to type “Diamondback in the Rough”] diamond in the rough: Robbie Ray.

The Diamondbacks may already be expecting as much. After all, the word from Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports is that they’re expecting interest in all of their young starters to pick up:

This adds up. In trading 2016 All-Star Jean Segura to the Seattle Mariners for Walker last week, new general manager Mike Hazen has already begun remaking a roster that produced just 69 wins in 2016. And with talented starters in short supply on the free-agent market, the Diamondbacks’ arms are bound to draw a crowd eventually. If they aren’t already, of course.

For the reasons referenced above, Hazen will get calls about Greinke, Miller, Corbin, Walker and Bradley. But Ray’s the guy who’s most likely to send the phone ringing off the proverbial hook. 

Reason No. 1: The left-hander is still only 25 with four years of club control left.

Reason No. 2: He’s very talented.

A surface-level examination of Ray’s career will raise questions about the second point. He only managed a 4.90 ERA in his 32 starts in 2016. Before that, he was a throw-in in two trades involving Doug Fister and Didi Gregorius. Before that, he was a fringey prospect after he was picked in the 12th round of the 2010 draft.

But for all the nits to pick, there’s a redeeming quality from Ray’s 2016 season that’s impossible to overlook. He struck out 218 batters in 174.1 innings. That’s 11.25 per nine innings, which was second only to the late Jose Fernandez among qualified starters.

Also, one of the best single-season marks ever for a left-hander:

Since strikeouts generally don’t happen by accident, nobody should be surprised to hear Ray’s didn’t.

After debuting with an average fastball of 91.3 miles per hour in 2014, he cranked it up to 94.1 mph in 2016. Some of that could be his coming into his physical prime. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs highlighted last year, it may also be coming from his abandoning a higher arm slot in favor of a more natural sidearm delivery.

Ray’s money pitch, however, is his slider. Its velocity has risen as well, from 81.1 mph in 2014 to 85.1 mph in 2016. Brooks Baseball shows he also buried more sliders below the knees, like so:

The result: Ray’s slider had the eighth-highest whiff-per-swing rate of any slider thrown by any starter, according to Baseball Prospectus.

Ray’s stuff would be attractive under any circumstances. His youth makes it even more attractive. The lack of starters who offer either of these qualities on the open market makes it more enticing still.

Of course, this raises the question of why the Diamondbacks wouldn’t prefer to keep him. There’s indeed a good chance they will. But the reason they could take advantage of Ray’s trade value now traces back to the essential truth reflected in the 4.90 ERA he posted this past season:

His talent comes with fatal flaws.

One is his control, which has produced mediocre walks-per-nine rates in the 3.5-3.7 range. That would be fine if he could at least avoid hard contact in between strikeouts and walks. But that was as big a problem as his 1.24 HR/9 and .352 batting average on balls in play from 2016 would indicate.

Per Baseball Savant, Ray was among the worst in the league with average exit velocity of 90.7 mph. This points to how his command is as big a question mark as his control. The bulk of the damage came on his heat, which he located with a noticeable pattern across the middle of the strike zone.

That’s a bad idea in general, and an even worse idea against right-handed batters. They hit .278 with 14 homers off Ray’s heat in 2016. Lo and behold, he ended the year with the following platoon split:

  • Against LHB: .684 OPS, 3 HR
  • Against RHB: .797 OPS, 21 HR

Say it with me now: Yikes.

Mind you, maybe Ray’s iffy fastball command wouldn’t be such a problem against right-handed batters if he had something to change speeds with. But he doesn’t. He’s largely scrapped his changeup, throwing it only 5.7 percent of the time in 2016.

The fact that Ray is basically a two-pitch pitcher leads to yet another problem. This one was covered by FanGraphsAugust Fagerstrom, with the short version being: Ray’s predictability makes life very difficult the third time through the batting order.

All told, Ray is a strange creature. He’s done enough to turn into an overpowering starter, but he still needs quite a bit of work to turn into a truly dominant starter. 

And yet, this strange set of circumstances makes him the perfect trade chip for this winter’s market. The upside contained in his ability and controllability could have teams lining up to trade for him, and his faults could keep his price tag well below those of guys like Chris Sale, Chris Archer, Jose Quintana and Justin Verlander.

To boot, there’s a number of ways a trade for Ray could work out.

If he irons out his issues, he could turn into a top-of-the-rotation starter. If not, he’d be a candidate to make like Andrew Miller and turn his fastball-slider combo into a life as a relief ace. Failing that, he could make like Brett Cecil and turn into an elite lefty specialist.

The bottom line is that Ray’s arm ought to be on the radar of every team desperate for pitching this winter. With so few options available elsewhere, it’s a good one to try to take a chance on.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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