Report: Mariners reel in AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, who turns breakout year into 5-year deal

Robbie Ray’s dazzling breakout season already landed him an AL Cy Young Award. Now it has earned him a five-year, $115 million deal with the up-and-coming Seattle Mariners, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan.

The lefty who solved longstanding walk issues with the Toronto Blue Jays and turned in a stellar 2021 season will earn $23 million per year, besting fellow breakout free agent Kevin Gausman — who signed with the Blue Jays on Sunday. Passan reports Ray will have an opt-out following the third season of the deal.

For a Mariners team that won 90 games in 2021 but fell short of breaking a 20-year playoff drought, this is a bet on Ray sustaining that high-level performance over the next few seasons, when they hope to introduce more and more young stars from a stacked farm system. He will slide into the top slot of the rotation ahead of Marco Gonzales. The 24-year-old prospect Logan Gilbert debuted in 2021, and minor-league strikeout artist George Kirby could follow in 2022.

Ray, who turned 30 in October, spent the early part of his career in Arizona deploying dominant stuff but struggling mightily to control it. In 2020, he led the National League in walks despite only pitching half the season there. A trade deadline move to Toronto began the process that formed an ace. After a promising run in late 2020, Ray quickly re-signed with the Blue Jays last offseason. In 2021, he posted the lowest walk rate of his career by far and kept the prolific strikeout totals. The result was a 2.84 ERA that led the AL, an MLB-best 248 Ks and the Cy Young nod.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 15: Robbie Ray #38 of the Toronto Blue Jays walks off the mound against the Tampa Bay Rays in their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on September 15, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
Robbie Ray's breakout season in Toronto earned him a five-year, $115 deal with the Seattle Mariners. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images) (Mark Blinch via Getty Images)

Ray takes Cy Young to the bank

Ray is among the highest-flying and also riskiest bets near the top of a free agent starting pitching market that also included aging superstars like Max Scherzer (who reportedly agreed to a record-breaking $43.3 million a year deal with the New York Mets on Monday), recently injured ones like Justin Verlander (who took a one-year, $25 million deal with the Houston Astros) and the similarly ascendant Gausman.

Ray has plenty of strong years left in his arm, and may well have unlocked a new level, but it’s far from a sure thing he can sustain the improvements that allowed him to flourish in Toronto. A similar, if less elite, burst of greatness in 2017 saw Ray land an All-Star berth and collect Cy Young votes, then immediately succumb to control problems again. Over the three seasons prior to 2021, Ray had managed just a 4.53 ERA — 4% below adjusted league average — and walked a frustrating 5.1 batters per nine innings.

The Mariners may see a newfound star. But skeptics could see shades of Patrick Corbin, Ray’s former teammate who turned a stellar contract year with the Diamondbacks into a six-year, $140 million pact with the Washington Nationals. He sustained that performance to help them win the World Series in 2018, but then tumbled into two miserable, homer-prone seasons due to inconsistent command and a poor fastball.

Ray’s fastball has always been a better pitch than Corbin’s, yet he is similarly reliant mostly on two pitches — the heater and a befuddling slider. He has proven it can be a Cy Young-winning formula, though, and the Mariners are hoping it is part of their path back to October.