What should Tigers do with Robbie Ray?
DETROIT — Well, Robbie Ray has passed the audition.
After two starts for the Detroit Tigers, the "sneaky fast" lefty has a 0.79 ERA and has exhibited a cool mound demeanor. He didn’t allow a run in six innings Sunday, but the bullpen let the three-run lead he departed with get away and the Minnesota Twins came back for a 4-3 win.
However, Ray is the player everyone was talking about after this game.
Tigers radio analyst Jim Price likened his delivery to that of Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. Price was not comparing Ray to the fire-throwing Koufax in terms of stuff. Ray throws a 90-92 mph fastball. What Price did see as similarities were deliveries that enabled both to deceive hitters by hiding the ball from them until the instant it’s released.
"His delivery reminds me of Sandy Koufax," Price told listeners. "He has the long arms. When he hides that ball, it’s a late release with an easy motion."
Ray, for all his effectiveness, doesn’t have an imposing presence on the mound.
"He’s one of those guys who gives you a comfortable 0-for-4," said Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky. "He makes his pitches and throws the changeup in any count. And we seemed to be just a hair-click away from his fastball."
Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire added, "I thought his fastball finished very well. It had zip on it at the end, real good late action. And he faded his changeup really good, throwing a couple of real good ones to lefties. But what I really liked about him was that he did not get rattled."
Ray is 1-0, and has allowed one run on nine hits and two walks over 11 1/3 innings. While it’s just two starts against teams with losing records and weak offenses, it looks like this cool 22-year-old is a keeper. But do the Tigers keep him now?
That will be an interesting call for Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski. Anibal Sanchez, whom Ray has been replacing in the rotation, will pitch a simulated game Tuesday in Baltimore. If all goes well, Sanchez will come off the disabled list and start next Sunday in Boston.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said Ray will travel to Baltimore with the team to begin a three-city road trip. If Sanchez checks out, Ausmus said a decision will be made on what to do with Ray at that point.
"We’ve discussed it," Ausmus said. "The truth is, he probably has to pitch regardless of where it is. The best thing for Robbie Ray is to continue to pitch and polish his three pitches so he can become a good major league starter."
Could he relieve? Sure, he absolutely could.
By saying he needs to "pitch," has it been determined that he could relieve in Detroit?
"We’ll make that decision when we have to," Ausmus said. "But could he relieve? Sure, he absolutely could."
So, Ray could do what current southpaw starter Drew Smyly did last year, and spend one season in the bullpen. It’s worth noting that Koufax broke in as a reliever with the Brooklyn Dodgers before becoming perhaps the best lefty starter the game has seen when the franchise moved to Los Angeles.
I asked Gardenhire what he would do if faced with sending Ray back to the minors to start or keeping him in the bullpen in the majors.
"Nice problem to have," said Gardenhire, while smiling and leaning back in his chair. "But I’d probably keep him stretched out as a starter. You never know when you might need to plug him into the rotation this year. Hey, we’re already down one starter (Mike Pelfrey)."
Ausmus has two Cy Young Award winners, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, to go with the defending American League earned run average leader in Sanchez. Rick Porcello (5-1, 3.49 ERA) and Smyly (2-2, 2.96) have been solid at the back end.
However, Ray has served notice that he’s ready if need be.
"Whatever they tell me, whatever they need or ask of me — I will do," Ray said.
Ray joined Jeff Weaver (1999), Stubby Overmire (1943) and Elon "Chief" Hogsett (1929) as the only Tigers to allow one run or less in their first two major league starts.
"His curveball was a little more consistent today," Ausmus said. "He mixed his fastball and changeup very well, and certainly deserved to win.
"As a starter at the major league level, you need three pitches. To put him over the top, it’s going to be the curveball. But he was outstanding."
And having to refine the curve — which he hadn’t thrown in two years until scrapping the slider for it in spring training — is the most important element in his development.
"I threw about a dozen of them," Ray said. "I have to try to get a feel for it, and the only way to do that is to throw it."
Brunansky said a couple of the curves were quite impressive, so the pitch is coming.
"I was able to pitch to contact and throw strikes," said Ray, who struck out two and walked one. "I was happy with this outing, and I couldn’t have asked for more from my first two starts."
So if Sanchez is ready to go come Tuesday, the Tigers have a "nice problem" on their hands.