This Whole Robbie Ray Injury Really Threw A Wrench Into This Mariners Season

There’s a couple ways to look at the Robbie Ray season-ending injury in his first (and only) start of the year. On the one hand, he was a guy brought in before the 2022 season to be your ace, and he subsequently struggled against the better teams in baseball (and by that I mean the Houston Astros, where he went 1-2 in the regular season, with a 10.97 ERA and a .442/.509/.865 slash line against). He also, not for nothing, was coming off of a God-awful playoff run where he laid an egg in Toronto (before the offense bailed him out late), then blew game one of the ALDS by giving up a walk-off home run. The fact that he mopped up the last two outs of that 18-inning final game – after the winning run had already been scored – was of little comfort to many Mariners fans who lost all faith in Ray’s abilities as an effective, front-of-the-rotation starter.

He came into the organization as the team’s ace, was bumped to the team’s #2 after the Luis Castillo trade, but he quickly got demoted in the playoffs to being a leverage reliever to being just a last-resort guy finishing off an 18-inning game once it was clear he was being eaten alive by these high-octane offenses. If he couldn’t put up zeroes in Toronto, there was no way we were trusting him against that Houston offense that had beaten him like a red-headed step-child all year.

So, that was the taste left in our mouths heading into 2023.

On the flipside, though, Robbie Ray has always been kind of up and down in his career. He still put up a lot of outstanding outings in 2022 – once he started incorporating the 2-seam fastball into his repertoire – and there are A LOT of innings to fill in a 162-game season. At his best, he’s proven he’s a Cy Young winner. At his worst, he’s still better than Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen.

And, if you’re a dreamer, you heard all the stories about his Spring Training performance. How he’d rededicated himself to building up his fastball speed, how he’d been working on a splitter to give himself another out pitch (and how that splitter appeared to be the most effective of the new pitches this staff had introduced in the offseason). You were told that Ray’s experience and mindset were of the variety that he’d be able to flush that 2022 season and bounce back in a major way (in effect, giving this rotation not one, but two aces).

You had a choice to make: did you believe the end to Ray’s 2022 season meant the premature end of his career as a viable starter in the Major Leagues? Or, did you believe in the redemption story?

Well, TOO FUCKING BAD, you don’t get the answer to those questions, because he pitched 3.1 innings in game one, was pulled, and immediately went on the IL. After a rest period, it was discovered he needed surgery to repair a flexor tendon, as well as have Tommy John surgery. That’s apparently 12-18 months of recovery, on top of which pitchers never come back right away to be as effective as they once were. I think, best case scenario, you’re looking at Robbie Ray (as we know him) coming all the way back in 2025, when he’ll be 33 years old and in the fourth year of his five-year deal.

It’s unfortunate that the injury happened at all, but it’s especially disheartening that it happened so early in the season. We effectively got nothing out of Ray in 2023, and are now required to spread his 190 innings across lesser pitchers in the organization.

That started with Chris Flexen – our de facto sixth starter – who was pulled up from the bullpen. The good news was that he was still stretched out from Spring Training; the bad news was that he was a fucking disaster, and after four fucking miserable starts, he was re-demoted to the bullpen. Then, we got one miracle game out of Easton McGee before he hit the IL, necessitating us to go to our … eighth starter?

There could be a silver lining here, if Bryce Miller turns out to be the next Logan Gilbert or George Kirby. Getting him going now – at the beginning of May – will allow him to work out the kinks of learning at the Major League level. But, is it too soon? He’s had 14 starts at the AA level across the last two seasons. He’s already young for THAT level, which means he’s an infant when it comes to the bigs.

Miller was always going to be a bullet in our chamber for 2023. We knew going in that it would be nearly impossible for the Mariners to replicate how fortunate they were from a health standpoint in their 2022 rotation. But, unleashing that bullet so soon doesn’t leave us with much of anything else in reserve, either if he doesn’t pan out, or if we suffer more injuries to our staff.

I just can’t believe how bad Flexen has been this year. In 2021 and 2022, he was at least a league-average starter! He’d eat innings, while keeping his pitch count low, and he’d keep us in ballgames. It wasn’t always the prettiest, but he got the job done. And now, it’s like he’s completely lost it!

I was always of the belief, though, that this rotation would be carried by Castillo, Gilbert, and Kirby. If Ray was great, then that’s a huge bonus, and probably means the Mariners are contenders for the division. But, I severely underestimated Ray’s importance to the 2023 Mariners. As it’s played out, we see what he meant to the stability of this rotation. It’s been a nightmare from Game 2 onward! Hopefully, Bryce Miller can right the ship, and we can get back on course.

It’s just a bummer – on a fan level – knowing that we never got to see the full potential of the 2023 Mariners (and we never will). Not even for one weekend! It would’ve been something to see this team – the way it was meant to be – in the heart of the summer, kicking ass and taking names at 100% full strength.

I’ll also say this: losing Ray puts significant strain on our bullpen, now having TWO starters (Miller and Kirby) who will need their innings limited and their pitch counts closely monitored. We’re talking about a bullpen that has Andres Munoz on the IL, that has Diego Castillo AND Matt Festa in Tacoma, and that’s seen Matt Brash have some more difficulties after we thought he’d be a finished product coming out of Spring Training.

Hold onto your butts, everyone. We still have a ton of baseball left to go.

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