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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Robbie Ray had his day, but should not stay with Tigers

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published on on Sunday, May 11, but is being republished here, due to a broken link.]

DETROIT — Robbie Ray did his job.

The rookie, acquired in the Doug Fister trade, came up and made two excellent spot starts, holding the fort with Anibal Sanchez on the disabled list.

He got on the plane for Baltimore with the rest of the Tigers after Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Minnesota Twins, when he threw six scoreless innings, but the bullpen and two misplays in the outfield blew his chances at a second win.

Couldn’t ask for much better of a start to a career.

“It went pretty well. I don’t know if I could ask for anything more — maybe a complete game. But, no, I couldn’t ask for anything more from the first two starts,” said the 22-year-old Ray, with a wry smile. “It feels good. You feel good about yourself, and you carry yourself a little better. The nerves weren’t there today. I was a little more calm after the first start. It definitely feels good, though.

“To do that over a five-day basis, you feel like you belong.”

But, contrary to the popular groundswell of opinion, he’ll probably get on a plane from Baltimore and rejoin the Toledo Mud Hens at home next Wednesday, as long as everything plays out well in Sanchez’s simulated game on Tuesday.

At that point, Ray’s job as a fill-in starter will be over — until they might need him again.

Could he stay with the Tigers, and pitch out of the bullpen? Sure, that’s possible.

But then, once he’s no longer stretched out as a starter (as happened to Drew Smyly last year), they’ll have to find someone else to fill the role that Ray inherited when the Tigers traded for him.

Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to change the plan mid-stream.

“We’ve discussed (Ray’s role). The truth is, he probably has to pitch, wherever he is. If and when Anibal Sanchez comes back, there’s going to have to be a decision made with him, but I think the best thing for Robbie Ray would be to continue to pitch, to continue to work on that curveball, and to polish his other pitches to be a major-league starter,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said Sunday.

“He’s had two outings here, and pitched well, filled in nicely. But I do think, in the big picture, he needs to pitch. He’s still a young kid.”

Ray has pitched one game in relief as a professional — the warm-up inning he threw at Toledo before his call-up. He’s willing to do whatever the Tigers ask of him.

“I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing, which is whatever is asked of me,” Ray said. “If that’s the bullpen, great. I’d love to stay up here. I know that I’m a starting pitcher, but I’m absolutely open to whatever I can do to help out the team.”

That begs the question: How CAN he best help the team?

Is it as a starter, ready to plug in, should injury (or doubleheaders) strike? Or is it as a reliever, who might give the big-league bullpen a boost, but whose short-term progress is stifled by a move to a new role?

“I mean, we’ll make that decision when we have to. But generally speaking, if you want him to be a starter at the major league level, he has to pitch as a starter. Now, does that mean he couldn’t fill in in the bullpen? Sure, he absolutely could. But the question is, is it best for Robbie Ray to pitch as a starter, or as a reliever, long term?” said Ausmus, noting that Ray is still working on rounding out his repertoire.

“As a starter at the Major League level, you need at least three pitches. The change-up is his best pitch, the most consistent off-speed pitch. But I think to put him over the top, it’s going to be the curveball, eventually.

“It comes and goes. He messed with it in spring training, and it’s coming along slowly. But it’s going to be inconsistent.”

To maximize the value for that trade, the Tigers need Ray to be ready to step into the rotation next season, once free agency begins to open up holes.

They also need him to be ready to start.

Just ask a team like the Angels how fun it is to not have enough pitching depth. Their “sixth starter” is Jose Alvarez, who held that same role with the Tigers last year. He, too, got a win and a no-decision in his first two spot starts with the team.

Detroit lost his remaining four starts last season. Oh, and he gave up five home runs in 4 2/3 innings in his last minor-league start for the Angels.

No, Ray is best off doing his job.

And staying put as a starter.

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