The Reds are hoping that Gray’s former college pitching coach can return him to form.
After days of waiting, the Sonny Gray trade finally came to fruition. The reloading Reds acquired the struggling starter in a three-way trade that also involved the Mariners, who are getting a prospect named Shed Long in the deal. The Yankees are getting Josh Stowers and a competitive balance pick in the upcoming draft. As part of the deal, the Reds and Gray agreed to a three-year, $30.5 million extension plus a $12 million team option for 2023.
Gray has always been a bit frustrating as a major leaguer. Baseball Prospectus once described his overall future projection as a number two or three starter, but he only reached that ceiling in one year in 2015, where he had a 3.07 RA9 and 5.3 WAR. The following year he struggled with injuries and saw his RA9 double. He started to pitch well again in 2017 with a 4.45 RA9, but the A’s decided it was time to move on and traded him to the Yankees.
It looked like Gray could be a boost to the Yankees’ rotation, and he was pretty solid for the rest of 2017, more or less pitching as well as he did in Oakland. Unfortunately, his performance fell off a cliff last year. He had a 5.04 RA9 and a walk rate approaching 10 percent. He got demoted to bullpen in August, and he had a lot more success there with a 2.60 RA9 in only 17 1⁄3 IP, but there was no change in his peripherals other than a decrease in home run rate.
The Reds are clearly hoping that reuniting Gray with Derek Johnson, his old pitching coach from college, can fix him. The problem is that Gray has trouble giving up the long ball, and the Great American Ballpark is as comparably homer-friendly as Yankee Stadium. He does a great job of keeping the ball on the ground with a career groundball rate of over 50 percent, but every ball that goes in the air is going to make Reds fans hold their breath.
The good news for Reds fans is that given what Gray cost the team in dollars and prospects, the risk is low. Even if he becomes nothing more than a back-of-the-rotation starter, he will be worth his salary, and if he becomes close to what he used to be, he will be a steal.
The Reds also received Reiver Sanmartin, a pitcher who is unlikely to be anything more than a LOOGY. Long and Stowers probably will not be appearing on anyone’s top 100 prospect rankings, but the Yankees were never going to get that kind of player after the year Gray just had.
The big haul in this trade is the competitive balance pick that the Yankees received, because the slot money associated with that pick is a big deal. The Reds losing ~$2 million in pool money hurts. The Yankees had so little leverage that I am surprised that the Reds had to include this to get the deal done. The draft is especially important for smaller market teams like the Reds. I would have said “no.”
That draft pick is what really has me hung up on what otherwise looks like a low risk, high reward trade. The Reds have been very busy this offseason, and it is great to see teams actually trying to win, but they are in such a competitive division that even if Gray pitches like he did in 2015, they are unlikely to make the playoffs. The caveat to that is if Gray’s former pitching coach can fix him, with Gray’s salary, the Reds can flip him for some nice prospects, the kind they might lose out on without that bonus money.
What the Reds are trying to do is admirable, but they need to keep improving the team to make it all worthwhile. As for the Yankees, the draft pick compensation makes this a nice return for a pitching they did not want anymore. And as for the Mariners, well, what can I say other than Jerry Dipoto just can’t help himself.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.