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CY YA LATER: When Blue Jays signed Gausman, Ray days were done

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After winning his first Cy Young Award in recognition of a brilliant season with the Blue Jays, Robbie Ray couldn’t say enough good things about his now-former team.

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Where the platitudes became muted, however, was when it came to discussing the possibility of returning to the Jays for 2022 and beyond on a multi-year deal.

Ray, possibly speaking on the advice of his representatives, made it clear that he was enjoying the free-agent courtship and that he was quite content to play the field.

Less than a day after the Jays took money that potentially (likely?) had been designated for the pursuit of the left-hander and spent it on Kevin Gausman, Ray signed a five-year, $115-million US deal with the Seattle Mariners.

Thus ends one of the more impressive, albeit abbreviated, tenures by a Jays starter.

And with it, begins what could be a five-year debate and comparison between a pair of all-star pitchers who came into their own in 2021 and will be seen as key players in the Jays’ drive towards being a contender.

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The nuances of the negotiations are unlikely to surface publicly, but it’s certainly worth speculating on just how badly the Jays wanted to pursue Ray and if, in fact, they perceived more upside in Gausman.

In Ray, the Jays saw mostly brilliance in a 2021 campaign in which he emerged as an ace. The lefty was a massive reason for the team finishing a game out of a post-season berth.

A strikeout machine, Ray experienced a renaissance working under Toronto pitching coach Pete Walker and pitched with far more control and consistency than he had at any point previously in his career. Will he be able to sustain that form in Seattle? The Mariners and the rest of the AL West are about to find out.

At the risk of overstating the influence of Walker and the rest of the Jays baseball operations staff, how much will Gausman now benefit from being under their tutelage?

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There certainly are parallels between Gausman and Ray in terms of their career arc. Both guys are coming off of stellar personal best years in 2021 but each had more not-so-good seasons than good ones earlier in their big-league days.

Pitcher Kevin Gausman leaves San Francisco for Toronto, a team that is expected to contend for years to come. GETTY IMAGES FILES
Pitcher Kevin Gausman leaves San Francisco for Toronto, a team that is expected to contend for years to come. GETTY IMAGES FILES

It’s possible, as well, that the Jays saw more upside in Gausman, especially over the duration of a five-year deal. Ray is what baseball people like to call a “max effort guy” and over time that style obviously can take a toll on a pitcher.

Even though the contracts were similar — which serves to further fuel the debate — both were free agents. It is entirely possible that Ray preferred to go elsewhere and is getting $5 million more to do it.

It’s also possible that Ray’s camp was playing poker and lost.

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There were suggestions on Monday that the Jays offered to Ray the same five-year, $110-million deal they eventually gave to Gausman. So did the Ray camp balk at that point, suggesting there were multiple suitors to attempt to milk more out of the Rogers Communications cash cow?

Once it was clear that Gausman was interested in the Jays, general manager Ross Atkins would have had a decision to make: Risk a back-and-forth with Ray which he might not have a chance of winning anyway or circle in on the pursuit of Gausman.

The Jays tried to get Gausman on a multi-year deal last winter, so the acquisition isn’t just a product of a whim. And looking toward the back end of the contract, there may be more appeal to Gausman’s fastball-splitter mix than Ray’s fastball-slider menu.

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The Jays certainly didn’t want to lose out on both pitchers, which could have led to the walk away from Ray and the Sunday night agreement with Gausman.

However it unfolded, the conclusion has the early sign of being yet another strong off-season move by Atkins.

Buoyed by Rogers money and a team whose cache of young talent is becoming magnetic to free agents, the Jays have become a big player in each of the past three off-seasons. (Along those lines, at this writing has anyone heard from Toronto’s AL East rivals in Boston and New York?)

As significant players in what has truly become a free-agent frenzy, did the Jays get the best of the two most realistic options for their rotation? That will play itself out over the next several seasons, but at this point, it would be a stretch to score it as a loss for the Jays.

The looming MLB lockout notwithstanding, there is still some work to be done for Atkins, be it via trade or free agency, to add another starter and reliable infielder. But for now, they’ve added an important piece to their rotation and even while allowing their best arm of 2021 to get away.

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