The odyssey of a Cy Young award winner Robbie Ray

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. –  At the advent of the 2017 National League Division series, Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts was asked how his team would solve the Robbie Ray puzzle.

After dispatching the Colorado Rockies in the wild-card game, the Arizona Diamondbacks advanced to meet the Dodgers and the specter of left-hander Ray weighed heavily on L. A. hitters. Ray was coming off a 15-5 season, 2.89 ERA and struck out 218 hitters in 162 innings. Ray was particularly effective against Roberts’ Dodgers. In five starts that year, he won four of five decisions and fanned 53 hitters in that span.

Perhaps the most memorable win occurred on September 4 in Dodger Stadium. That night, Ray gathered a 12-5 decision, fanned 14 and walked none.

Given his ability to control Dodger bats throughout the season, Roberts was asked about strategy.

“Simple,” replied the L. A manager at the time. “We need to unlock the code.”

That collective season of production and growing reputation as a dominant power pitcher elevated Ray’s stature as well as his value in the marketplace. In the subsequent seasons prior to the pandemic, Ray continued to be dominant but his value, to the Diamondbacks, diminished. Ray’s inability to effectively control the strike zone and elevated pitch count at nearly every outing became a norm but the Brentwood, Tenn. native was caught in a precarious position.

Ray was approaching free agency and with the Paul Goldschmidt trade to St. Louis earlier, general manager Mike Hazen would not push players out of the desert without something of value in return. While his physical ability continued to be formidable, Hazen decided Ray’s value to the club declined and a change was necessary.

“It was a tough situation (in 2020) because I was working on a new delivery and new arm movement,” Ray said during spring training a year ago. “When you have a 60-game season (in 2020), you don’t have time to make adjustments. I never had a chance to let to ride out. Changes that I made could have been successful, but I didn’t have a full 162 games to allow that to happen.”

At the time, Ray discounted the Diamondbacks incentive.

“I was a business decision,” he added. “Strictly that. I was going into free agency, and you might as well get something for me, at that point.”

Hazen then pulled the trigger on a deal with Toronto in which Ray was shipped north of the border on Aug. 31, 2020, for lefty-hander Travis Bergen. After the deal, Bergen appeared in seven games for Arizona, was sold back to Toronto, signed by San Diego as a free agent in 2022, and subsequently released by San Diego in August 2022.

With the Jays, Ray continued to attract attention. His 13-7 record, a sparking 2.84 ERA, and 248 strikeouts in 193.1 innings, all league-highs, earned the 32-year-old the American League Cy Young award in 2021.

Then, a winding, haphazard journey.

With his stature elevated, Ray, in that free agent market, signed a 5-year, $115 million deal with Seattle. Immediately, he went down with arm trouble that resulted in Tommy John surgery to repair a flexor tendon in his left elbow. The malady was discovered during his initial start of the 2023 season for the Mariners and a decision was made in April of last year to undergo the surgical procedure.

With the medical news that Ray would be out until the middle of the 2024 season, the Mariners continued the odyssey by trading the lefty to the San Francisco Giants on Jan. 5 of this year for lefthander Anthony DeSclafani, outfielder Mitch Haniger, and cash.

Ray reported to the Giants’ spring camp in Scottsdale and began the road back. He began throwing bullpen sessions, but the Giants do not expect him in any competitive environment until the All-Star game in mid-July.

“Robbie Ray is doing great, but it will be a while,” said Giants manager Bob Melvin prior to the opening of three-game series against Tampa Bay on April 12. “You will not see him until the second half of the season.”

Watching Ray from across the diamond while managing Oakland, Melvin pointed out the talent was obvious.

“I saw a really good fastball, a really good slider, and a guy who competes as well as anyone,” Melvin added. “You feel that on the other side. There are competitors and these guys find ways to do things. That’s the way he has always been. I think he has embraced being that kind of guy and being the villain out there. It works for him. When you look up, especially a couple of years ago, and when you matched up against him, and went in for a series, you always looking to see if his name would be in the three and hoping it was not.”

Upon his return later this season, Ray joins a formidable cast of starters. With Logan Webb, Alex Cobb (recovering from left hip surgery) and Blake Snell, add Ray to the mix the Melvin and other San Francisco decision-makers hope this trio can be formidable to help challenge for NL West division honors and post-season placement.

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