With ‘brand new elbow,’ Robbie Ray excited to help SF Giants

For the fifth time in his career, Robbie Ray has a new team.

For the fourth time in his life, he has a new child.

And for the second time, he said, “it feels like I have a brand-new elbow.”

“Because not only did I get Tommy John but I got flexor tendon surgery as well, so I got a full reconstruction,” Ray said Friday, introduced over Zoom three weeks after the San Francisco Giants acquired him from the Mariners for Mitch Haniger and Anthony DeSclafani.

Ray had good reason for the delay.

Five days after the trade, his wife, Taylor, gave birth to their second daughter, Sophia, on January 10.

“It’s been kind of a whirlwind,” Ray, 32, said. “But my wife is awesome. … We’ve been together for over 10 years. She’s my rock, for sure.”

It will take some more time before the Giants can pencil the 2021 American League Cy Young winner into their rotation.

A season after claiming the award — and signing a free-agent contract that has three years, $73 million and an opt-out clause after this season remaining on it — Ray made one start, felt discomfort in his elbow and was told his flexor tendon required surgery. Upon further inspection, it turned out to be worse. The ulnar collateral ligament also needed to be repaired — Tommy John surgery.

Almost nine months removed from the operation, Ray said he is “feeling really good.”

Working out at the Giants’ facilities in Arizona, Ray is scheduled to extend his long toss program to 120 feet for the first time Saturday.

“Tentatively sometime early in spring training, get off the mound. Nice and easy, feel the slope,” Ray said. “And then, best case scenario after the All-Star break, make a return.”

When Farhan Zaidi acquired Ray (swinging a deal with, you guessed it, Jerry Dipoto), he did so with the knowledge that he wasn’t filling a hole in the Opening Day rotation — hello, Jordan Hicks — but with the hope that he was finding a long-term partner at the top of the rotation for Logan Webb.

At full strength, Ray is a left-handed power pitcher, an ideal foil to Webb’s ground ball-oriented approach from the opposite side. Using just two pitches — fastball-slider — he ran double-digit rates of strikeouts per nine innings for seven consecutive seasons until his injury while averaging 169 innings per year (excluding the COVID-shortened 2020 season).

Ray, however, has translated that swing-and-miss ability into a sub-3.50 ERA only twice in eight full major-league seasons. But it all came together in 2021, when he led the AL with a 2.84 ERA, 193⅓ innings and 248 strikeouts — some might call it the modern-day pitcher’s triple crown — while earning 29 of 30 first-place Cy Young votes.

“I think for me it was just a culmination of the mental and physical side of baseball that just came together all at once,” Ray said, thinking back to his Cy Young season. “I feel like I always had the mentality of being able to go deep into games and get the strikeout when I needed to, but it didn’t always add up because physically I wasn’t able to do it, whether it was a limitation with my delivery or whatever it was.

“I think in ‘21, my body was physically where it needed to be and my mind still had that same mindset of I’m just gonna go out and attack guys because I know my stuff is better than yours.”

While Ray rehabs his way back, he hopes, all the way to that 2021 form, the Giants understand they have half-a-season’s worth of starts to fill in the meantime.

They will get Alex Cobb (hip) back around the same time, if not a little earlier, providing Ray a convenient rehab partner. Their relationship dates back “a few years,” Ray said, and “we do rehab everyday together pretty much.”

Ray also heard from and has met Logan Webb, who heads up a rotation that might seem light to start the season. After him and Ross Stripling, the group has combined to make 23 major-league starts. But Ray likes what he has seen since he joined the organization earlier this month.

“It seems like there are some really good young arms here,” Ray said. “I’ve gotten to watch some of them throw a couple of bullpens now. I’ve been able to watch Logan throw; obviously he’s a special talent. Got to watch Hicks throw off the mound today; his stuff is just explosive and it’s really fun to watch him, too. I think we’re in a really good spot as far as it goes with arms.”

That’s not to say the roster is necessarily sufficient.

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As a pitcher, with the likes of Matt Chapman, Cody Bellinger and other top free agents still available, it’s only natural to think about your run support. The Giants, after all, scored fewer than all but six teams last season, and the only major addition to the lineup has been Jung Hoo Lee.

“We could probably add a few bats. We could add a couple bats,” Ray said. “It couldn’t hurt. But I think as far as arms go, we’ve got the arms to do it.”

The looming question: the opt-out clause.

Ray will have the opportunity to pass up the remaining two years and $50 million he’s owed after this season for a potentially bigger payday on the open market. But given a return around the All-Star break, that gives him only two months to shake off the rust from a year-and-a-half layoff.

“I think for me my number one goal is to get healthy. That’s kind of my main focus,” Ray said. “I think everything else kind of falls into place once I do get healthy. … So far my interactions with everybody have been great. I think my main focus is just getting healthy first before I can make any kind of decision like that.”

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