Chance for big role has Ray at Mariners camp

Chance for big role has Ray at Mariners camp

Chance for big role has Ray at Mariners camp
PEORIA, Ariz. -- With a 94 mph fastball and 51 career saves on his resume, Chris Ray figures he could have signed with just about any Major League team on a Minor League deal this spring.

Heck, he even had a guaranteed one-year Major League offer on the table from another club, but says he turned it down for a chance to pitch for the Mariners as a non-roster invitee.

Why? Pretty simple, really. As general manager Jack Zduriencik says, Seattle is the land of opportunity right now, and the 29-year-old Ray wants to seize a chance to compete for a prominent late-inning relief role on a team in need of such help with closer David Aardsma not expected to be ready until mid-April at the earliest.

Ray, who earned a full World Series winner's share after pitching for both the Rangers and Giants last season, wants to earn his way back into the high-octane world of closing if possible. Or at least be a setup guy pitching with games on the line.

"That's basically what it boiled down to," Ray said Tuesday, shortly before throwing his first bullpen session at Mariners camp. "I could have got a Minor League contract from any team. It just came down to which club I was going to have the best opportunity to get back into a role I wanted in the bullpen, which is toward the back end.

"With injury and people being young here, it seemed like a real good chance for me to move back into those roles."

That's why he turned down a Major League deal with a team that didn't need late-inning opportunities.

"It doesn't really mean a whole lot if it's a one-year contract and I'm a free agent again next year if I'm pitching basically the scrap innings," he said. "That's not something that will help me out in the future. From this point forward, I want to be the guy who goes in late in the ballgame."

He lost that role when he needed Tommy John surgery on his elbow in 2008. He struggled for the Orioles in '09 as his fastball dropped to about 89 mph and his throwing motion fell into a near-sidearm delivery attempting to compensate.

But the fastball is back now, he's added a curveball to a mix that also includes a slider and splitter, and it's just a matter of proving to the Mariners he deserves a shot and the $1 million that would come if he earns a spot on the 25-man roster by Opening Day.

The Mariners intend to give him every opportunity to compete with Brandon League and former Red Sox setup man Manny Delcarmen for the temporary closer role, and any late-inning job that emerges.

"He's working his way back," said manager Eric Wedge. "He's even further removed from that injury now, and I think really in tune to get back on track to what he was before. He has some experience and he obviously has a good heartbeat, closing the games he did.

"We've got time. He looked good today in his first time out. We just want him to work his way back and be ready to go. He's a legitimate back-end guy. Those guys just aren't around all over the place. He's been there, done that."

Ray experienced team success last year, pitching 63 games while splitting the season between the two World Series opponents. Despite a 5-0 record and 3.72 ERA in 55 2/3 innings, he didn't get on the playoff roster with the Giants, who acquired him on July 1 for Benjie Molina.

He did, however, earn a full World Series winner's share of $317,631 as split between the two teams. He also got to know a lot of characters, including Giants closer Brian Wilson, who he filled in for one game during the regular season.

"He does some quirky things, but he's a smart guy," Ray said. "Everybody on that team had a little different thing going on. It got kind of confusing at times, but it certainly made for a live clubhouse."

Things were even more confusing the year before, when Ray endured what he called "a miserable season" as he attempted to come back from his elbow reconstruction. But losing his fastball and overhand mechanics ultimately wound up helping him add a new pitch. Desperate to counter his decline, he started working on a two-seam fastball that proved effective last season.

"That seemed like a totally new pitch in my repertoire," he said. "I threw a lot inside to righties, running it in there. I broke way more bats than I had before, getting a lot of mis-hits and jam shots. That's going to help out once all my pitches come back together, because I'll have that one as well."

He also has the numerous reasons he chose Seattle after sitting down with his agent and looking at all the teams that might suit him best. He cites the tremendous outfield defense, the solid infield, the pitching-friendly Safeco Field, a stud starter in Felix Hernandez and a rotation that won't force the bullpen to burn a lot of make-up innings.

"This team isn't far removed from a good, contending season," he said. "It's not like they've been in last place forever. There are a lot of good players and pitchers on this team."

Not even the lack of offense last year worries him. Add a run a game, get a little better, and the formula is a familiar one for him.

"You look at San Francisco last year," he said. "That's not a lineup you dread going in and facing. It's the pitching staff you're not going to want to see. We held teams to one or two runs and just managed to squeak out an extra run and win. It's pitching. You have to pitch to win."

And for that you need a bullpen with dependable late-inning arms, as Ray was his first three seasons in Baltimore, when he had 49 saves with a 3.19 ERA and totaled 138 strikeouts in 149 1/3 innings from 2005-07. At that point, he was one of the bright young closers in the game.

Now he's just a guy looking for another shot. And if he works out, he'll be a steal of a deal.

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.