With Zack Greinke gone, the door is open for another ace in Arizona.
The line of succession starts with left-hander Robbie Ray, the most likely and most deserving candidate to take the role previously occupied by franchise stalwarts Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, like Greinke all multiple all-stars.
Ray, not Greinke, was the Diamondbacks’ most talked-about target at the July 31 trade deadline, and the fact that general manager Mike Hazen and his group opted to keep Ray is a strong indicator that they believe he could fill that void.
While Houston, the Yankees, Milwaukee and St. Louis were among the many teams expressing some level of interest before the deadline, Ray appeared greatly unfazed when his name was prominent on the national radar.
As late rumors swirled about a possible trade with the Yankees involving Ray and Clint Frazier as the principals, Ray did some of his best work. He was 4-1 with a 3.26 ERA in five July starts, and his peripherals during that time — 44 strikeouts, nine walks in 30 1/3 innings — underscored his ability to focus.
It is safe to say the Diamondbacks, who have one more year of control of Ray before he could test free agency, were impressed, another indication that he fits their long-term strategy.
“I don’t think he thought for once about what was going on,” manager Torey Lovullo said. “He went out and attacked the game the game the way he always has.
“With those intangibles, I think he could migrate into somebody very special inside of our rotation. I don’t want to put that (ace label) on him and I would never say that. I think you have to evolve and you have to earn that. If he continues on the path that he has been on, I’m sure inside of the clubhouse would get that kind of consideration.
“I would just tell Robbie to continue to be himself, and this game will figure out if he is or his he isn’t the ace of our staff.”
Archie Bradley said it directly: “Robbie is ready to step up and be an ace.”
Ray will take a 10-7 record and a 4.03 ERA into his weekend start in a three-game series at the Dodgers, another chance for the Diamondbacks to remain close in a close wild card race.
Ray has a resume that suggests a spot at the head of the rotation is not a stretch. He was 15-5 with a 2.80 ERA in 2017 despite missing a month after being struck in the face by a line drive and forced into the concussion protocol. He led the NL with 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings and was fourth in ERA, sixth in WHIP and seventh in the NL Cy Young award balloting that year.
He was slowed last year after missing almost two months because an oblique injury but still had 165 strikeouts in 123 2/3 innings, becoming the only player in major league history with 165 strikeouts in less than 125 innings.
New York Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey, who was the Diamondbacks’ pitching coach in Ray’s first season in Arizona in 2015, is a believer.
“He’s 100 times better than he was and he still has potential to be even better than that,” Harkey told nj.com. before the deadline. “He had everything you need to be a 20-game winner in his tool box. Once he puts it together, I think it’s going to be unlimited what he’s capable of doing.”
Ray always has been strikeout-forward, but he is doing it a little differently this season while averaging 12 strikeouts per nine innings, second to Max Scherzer.
Ray’s average velocity has ticked down about one mph to 92.5, according to FanGraphs, but he is throwing his slider more than ever — a career-high 33 percent. The result has been more swings on pitches outside the strike zone than in any other year. Former teammate Patrick Corbin, for one, is a model for how a left-hander can make the fastball/slider combo work.
Ray, 27, has worked with pitching coach Mike Butcher and made strides toward maintaining his mechanics and finding a rhythm, which have enabled him to have a more consistent release point.
“Zack casts a large shadow, but the way Robbie has performed here over the past few years, he is definitely a guy you can count on no matter what,” Arizona catcher Alex Avila said.
“He’s been able to evolve and get better every year and figure himself out a little bit more each year. That stuff takes time, because sometimes you have something that works really, really well, so it is kind of hard to make some changes to get better because you end up lacking focus on what you do really well. I expect him to keep evolving.”
The Diamondbacks will have one more year of discovery before they could go all in. Ray could expect to earn about $10 million in his final year of salary arbitration this winter. Washington’s Tanner Roark settled for $10 million to avoid arbitration with Cincinnati as a five-plus last year, and Jake Odorizzi signed for $9.5 million to avoid arbitration in Minnesota.
However it plays out, Ray is not concerned about labels.
“I’m the guy who has been here the longest, so maybe,” he said of taking ownership of the No. 1 spot. “I just go about my business every five days. I’m going to do whatever I can when I get the ball and let everything else fall into place.”