Mariners fans riding high on the hog of Aprilenic got an unpleasant return to reality today when it was announced by the team that LHP Robbie Ray will undergo surgery on his flexor tendon and miss the remainder of the season. While Ray was being evaluated to see if he could return to a throwing program, doctors instead discovered more damage in a different area of his flexor tendon and recommended surgery.
A flexor tendon strain often leads to Tommy John surgery, as noted in the original article about Ray’s injury. A UCL reconstruction, or “Tommy John” or “TJ” can keep a player on the shelf anywhere from a year to 18 months. A torn flexor tendon, which is what Ray sustained, is a different injury, with a shorter recovery period: more like nine months, similar to the injury Matt Boyd had before coming to Seattle. Over his career, the 31-year-old Ray has never spent significant time on the IL: he’s missed a couple weeks here and there with minor injuries, suffered a concussion in 2017 and had a oblique strain in 2018, but this is his first time dealing with a significant arm injury.
It’s a terrible blow for Ray and the Mariners, as Ray has not only held down a place in the rotation but has also served as a mentor figure for many of the team’s young pitchers, specifically George Kirby, who was his spring training catch partner. Ray was instrumental in helping Kirby develop his new two-seamer; the two worked on a new splitter this spring.
With Ray done for the season, the Mariners essentially have three options: 1) move Chris Flexen into the rotation permanently; 2) promote a player from the minors to take Ray’s place; 3) trade for another rotation piece.
Currently, the team is rolling with the first option, with some fairly rough results, The Mariners have lost every game Flexen has started, although he only gave up one run in his first outing against Cleveland and just two against the Angels. Since then, however, it’s been a dismal skid, starting with the blown lead against Chicago, followed by giving up four runs against Milwaukee and six not-entirely-his-fault runs against St. Louis.
Flexen doesn’t have options, but could be returned to a bullpen role if the team wanted to get a look at another arm—consider that a hybrid of the first two options. The hot names here will be prospects Bryce Miller, Emerson Hancock, or Bryan Woo, all of whom are in Double-A Arkansas, but none of whom are ready for a big-league role just yet. 2021 draftee Woo has maybe the most promising strikeout stuff but the least polish of the three after missing significant time at the start of his big-league career with TJ surgery of his own. He has all of 12 innings pitched in the high minors and has been pitching in shorter, four-inning outings, so don’t expect to see him anytime soon. Hancock, the team’s first-rounder in 2020, has the most time at Double-A, but has struggled with injuries of his own and hasn’t been able to miss bats until this year, although that’s also come with an uptick in his walk rate. 2021 third-rounder Miller got the longest spring training look of the three and is likely the first of this group to get a nod, but so far his strikeouts are down this season and he’s recently coming off an outing where he got shelled by Texas’s Double-A team led by top prospect Evan Carter.
There are other internal options in Triple-A, although it would take a substantial meltdown from Flexen to lose out to the likes of lefty Tommy Milone or José Rodríguez or Darren McCaughan, all of whom are best utilized emergency spot starters or bullpen depth rather than regular rotation pieces. RHP Taylor Dollard has been a hot name among Mariners prospect aficionados after dominating the Texas League last year, but he’s only pitched eight innings so far in Tacoma and has been brutalized by the longball—a 50% HR/FB rate!—leading to a ERA/FIP approaching double digits. One name to keep an eye on is Easton McGee, acquired from the Red Sox for cash this off-season after being DFA’d by the Rays, who used him as a bullpen arm. Seattle has transitioned him back to his starter roots and he’s made five solid starts for Tacoma, proving adept at limiting hard contact (his HR/FB rate is a full digit’s less than Dollard’s, at just 5.3%) and commanding the zone well. Outside of one rough Opening Weekend start where he allowed four runs to the Dodgers’ Triple-A team over 4.1 innings, he’s allowed just 1-2 earned runs per start in every start thereafter while pitching at least five innings.
There’s also the trade market, which is the most complicated and costly option of the three. This early in the season it’s hard to find teams willing to admit they’re throwing in the towel, and one of those teams plays in the Mariners’ division. The Mariners’ major trade capital is in their young outfielders Taylor Trammell and Cade Marlowe, both of whom are coming back from injuries that kept them out of spring training, and the same pitching prospects who might be able to step into Flexen’s place if necessary somewhere down the line. While the trade market might open up further down the line this season, it’s difficult to see that as an immediate option for the club.
What happens next largely depends on what Chris Flexen is able to do. The Mariners built pitching depth in case of this scenario; now, that depth will be tested early. Flexen’s currently getting scorched by the longball, with a 20% HR/FB rate, an offshoot of how poor his command has been in the zone. If he can make just a couple key adjustments to manage his hard contact and chew up some innings until one of the pitching prospects is ready, the path forward is less murky. If this is not, as Flexen said after his outing against the Cardinals, “rock bottom,” then the Mariners will have to get creative to patch up the Ray-shaped hole in their rotation.