On Wednesday, erstwhile Toronto Blue Jays lefty Robbie Ray was named the 2021 American League Cy Young award winner. He received 29 of 30 first-place votes -- Yankees ace Gerrit Cole received the other -- after leading the Junior Circuit in innings (193 1/3), ERA (2.84), ERA+ (154), WHIP (1.05), strikeouts (248), and WAR (6.7). A deserving Cy Young, through and through.
"It feels great to talk about it now that I've actually won the award," Ray told reporters, including Sportsnet's Shi Davidi, after the Cy Young announcement. "I'm super excited and I'm just looking to build on it, honestly. To keep getting better every single day and push forward to even greater things."
Ray picked an excellent time to have a Cy Young season. He is a free agent this offseason ---- and is poised to cash in big. Ray is the ninth pitcher in history to win the Cy Young award heading into free agency and four of the previous eight changed teams in the offseason.
The early days of free agency have been kind to free agent starting pitchers (Eduardo Rodriguez, Noah Syndergaard, and Justin Verlander signed for a combined $123 million across seven contract years) and Zack Wheeler's five-year, $118 million contract with the Phillies would seem to be Ray's floor. He could beat Patrick Corbin's contract with the Nationals (six years, $140 million).
One way or another, Ray is headed for a nine-figure payday that will earn him north of $20 million annually over the next several years. Where could the reigning AL Cy Young winner land? Which teams are the best fit? Let's break down Ray's market.
The best fit: Blue Jays
The Blue Jays have developed a reputation for helping pitchers level up (Marco Estrada and JA Happ did it under their watch as well), and Ray is their greatest success story. It stands to reason Toronto would want to keep him around (why let another team benefit from your hard work?) and Ray would want to stick around (why leave a place you've had success?).
There are reasons Ray and the Blue Jays are a perfect fit behind that, of course. Toronto is a rising powerhouse with a dominant offense and three other above-average starters in Hyun-Jin Ryu, Alek Manoah, and the . Ryu's contract is up in two years, though Berríos and Ray would be a fierce lefty-righty combination the next 5-6 years.
Even with Berríos getting a large contract and youngsters like Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. due long-term extensions, the Blue Jays have the financial wherewithal to re-sign Ray and keep their sterling rotation together. It's a win-win. The Blue Jays keep a great pitcher as they transition to World Series contender, and Ray gets paid well while getting a chance to win.
The other best fit: Angels
Angels GM Perry Minasian recently told reporters, including ESPN's Alden Gonzalez, that his goal this offseason is to "significantly improve our rotation." was one step toward that goal, though more help is required. Anaheim is planning to use a six-man rotation in 2022, and right now those six pitchers are:
The Angels could clearly use another starter, preferably a high-end starter to push Syndergaard down a peg on that rotation depth chart in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. Ray would fit wonderfully and give Anaheim their first bona fide ace since Jered Weaver was in his heyday.
In terms of total dollars, Syndergaard's $21 million contract is the largest contract the Angels have given a free agent starter since signing Joe Blanton to a two-year, $15 million deal in 2012. Their inability to get Mike Trout to the postseason is rooted in the club's unwilling to dedicate significant resources to the rotation. It's time to change that. Ray is an obvious fit.
The lurking division rival: Red Sox
Earlier this week the Red Sox lost Rodriguez, their stalwart lefty, Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Sale, Nick Pivetta, and Tanner Houck. Sale will be in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery and Houck has never thrown 120 innings in a season, so he'll have workload restrictions.. His departure leaves a void in a rotation set to include
Ray would more than replace Rodriguez. He would be an upgrade over Rodriguez, and the Red Sox would would also weaken the AL East rival Blue Jays by stealing away their ace. It's a double whammy. The Red Sox get an ace and the Blue Jays lose an ace, and in a division that featured four 90-win teams in 2021, a move like that could shift the balance the power.
Will Chaim Bloom and the suddenly budget-conscious Red Sox (remember when they traded Mookie Betts to get under the luxury tax threshold and haven't gone over since?) spend what it takes to get Ray? Unclear. They should though. Eovaldi is a year away from free agency and signing Ray would ensure Boston rosters at least one high-end starter behind 2022.
The Yankees deserve a mention here because we should never rule them out on a top free agent, but if New York spends on a big-name free agent this offseason, it will likely be a shortstop. The club is more likely to add a starter through trade or on a short-term free agent deal. Never say never with the Yankees, though Ray to the Bronx does seem unlikely.
The Giants and Mariners contended in different ways in 2021 -- San Francisco had baseball's best record while Seattle narrowly missed the postseason for the 20th straight year -- though they share a common trait this winter: they have money to spend. The Giants shed several big contracts this winter and the Mariners have few dollars on the books long-term. Money is plentiful.
Both clubs have money to spend, a need in the rotation, and a desire to contend in 2022. What better way to use that available payroll space than to add a Cy Young winner to the rotation? Signing Ray and re-signing Kevin Gausman would give the Giants a dynamite 1-2-3 punch along with Logan Webb. Seattle's rotation is begging for a legitimate ace. I mean:
Someone to push Gonzales from No. 1 to No. 2, Flexen from No. 2 to No. 3, and Gilbert from No. 3 to No. 4 would be the ideal add for a Mariners team looking to secure its first postseason berth in a generation. Bottom line, San Francisco and Seattle have money to spend and are seemingly motivated to spend it, and they have a need in the rotation. Ray should be a target for both.
The Dodgers could lose Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer to free agency, and Trevor Bauer is likely to serve a suspension under MLB's domestic violence policy next season, meaning the rotation is in need of reinforcement. The Mets, meanwhile, have already lost Syndergaard to free agency, could lose Marcus Stroman, and their returning starters all carry questions:
- RHP Jacob deGrom (did not pitch after July 7 because of various injuries)
- RHP Taijuan Walker (7.13 ERA in second half)
- RHP Carlos Carrasco (6.04 ERA around various injuries)
- RHP Tylor Megill (6.13 ERA in final 11 starts)
- LHP David Peterson (did not pitch after June 30 because of foot injury)
Yeah, you don't have to try real hard to see a need for Ray or a similar top-tier starter. The Mets are owned by baseball's wealthiest owner and are desperate to return to the postseason and change the conversation from "lol Mets" to "this team is a real contender." Ray alone won't accomplish that, though he would be a big step in that direction.
The Dodgers and Mets could both use a top-tier starter this offseason and they certainly have the financial might to give Ray a big long-term contract. The money is a non-issue and the fit is clear. It will be an upset if we go through Ray's entire free agency without hearing the Dodgers and Mets engage him at some point.
Don't sleep on: Rangers
Texas lost 102 games in 2021 and the early indications are the club will be very aggressive this offseason. Here's what GM Chris Young told reporters, including Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, back in August:
"With the financial flexibility we have moving into the offseason, I expect us to be very active in the free agent market, targeting players who fit kind of our next few years and what we're trying to accomplish."
The Rangers are expected to pursue one of the big-name shortstops, though the rotation is a much greater need. Only one pitcher still on the roster made even 20 starts this past season (Dane Dunning made 25), and the club badly needs quantity and quality. They need someone who can chew up innings at an above-average rate, and Ray is capable of leading a staff and doing both.
Of course, convincing the reigning Cy Young winner to join a 102-loss club won't be easy, so the Rangers may have to overpay to get Ray to come to Texas. You know what though? It's just money, and the Rangers have plenty of it. Signing Ray would be akin to the Nationals signing Jayson Werth. At some point you have to invest in the roster and show you're a destination team.