What To Expect: Robbie Ray

Each Tuesday, Baseball America will take a look at a prospect who is either just arriving to the majors or on the cusp, providing a look at what can be expected from them in real life and also for fantasy purposes.

Robbie Ray (Photo by Cliff Welch).

Robbie Ray (Photo by Cliff Welch).

The Tigers identified young Nationals lefthanders Robbie Ray and Ian Krol as primary trade targets when they shopped Doug Fister to other teams in the offseason. Many analysts thought Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski should have aimed higher, but Ray and Krol have met expectations, while Fister has yet to pitch for Washington this season.

Krol supplanted Phil Coke as the Tigers’ primary bullpen lefty, with Drew Smyly now in the rotation, and now Ray will get a chance to help. The 22-year-old southpaw starts Tuesday against Houston, replacing Anibal Sanchez, who is out with a cut on his finger.

Scouting Report

Ray went 3-2, 1.53 at Triple-A Toledo this season, and has made just five starts above Double-A. Thus far in 2014 he has struck out 21 and walked five in 29 1/3 innings, so his command—a concern previously because of an arm drag—has been better in the early going.

Ray’s strikeout rate is down (6.7 per nine innings compared with 9.0 in his career), which is not unexpected given the higher level of competition, but he's also walking far fewer (1.6 versus 3.3 a year ago).

Ray’s velocity spiked in 2013, and his fastball ranges from 91-96 mph, averaging about 93. In fact, Dombrowski told Buster Olney last week on his ESPN podcast that Ray was “throwing 93-94 late in the ballgame. His curveball is a developing pitch . . . but we like his makeup. He projects to be at least a No. 3 starter.”

What To Expect

Ostensibly, this is a one-shot callup for Ray. The Tigers did not expect to need him this quickly, since their rotation remained a strength even following the Fister deal, but the injury to Sanchez necessitated a spot start.

Still, if Ray succeeds, the Tigers could shift him (or Smyly) to the bullpen to join Krol and Coke in a three-man lefty contingent in support of closer Joe Nathan, who's struggled through what he has called a dead arm. The Tigers also recently signed free agent righthanded reliever Joel Hanrahan, but he could be a month away as he takes the final steps to recovery from Tommy John surgery.

Ray’s biggest hurdles are his inexperience and lack of a consistent breaking ball. Coming into the season, the question was whether Ray had enough feel to spin an effective breaker. Dombrowski said that continues to be a concern.

If he answers that question, Ray could stick and be successful, especially pitching at the back of the rotation.