The Dodgers have been attached to a number of pitchers so far this offseason. They retained Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu, who join Walker Buehler, Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling and Julio Urias as potential rotation pieces in 2019. Stacie wrote about Maeda, whose incentive-heavy contract makes it ethically questionable to remove him from the rotation. There’s a chance he’s not one of the five best starters going into next season as-is, which makes the Dodgers’ interest in another starter interesting.
The Boys In Blue have been attached to Cleveland starters, which I wrote about last week. They’re also considered among the favorites to sign Yusei Kikuchi, and Brim broke him down a while back. But there’s yet another pitcher that could be of some interest to the Dodgers on the market as well.
Sonny Gray was supposed to be the next big thing. He entered the league in 2013 and tossed 64 innings of 2.67 ERA/2.70 FIP baseball. He followed that by tossing a career-high 219 innings and posting a 3.08 ERA with a 3.46 FIP in 2014, but 2015 was his peak, as Gray finished third in Cy Young voting with 208 innings of 2.73 ERA/3.45 FIP pitching. Oakland probably should have traded him after that season during which they went 68-94, but they didn’t and Gray fell off quite hard. In 2016, Gray was limited to 117 innings as he only made two starts after July 31st due to a strained trapezius muscle and a forearm strain. When he did pitch, he posted a 5.69 ERA and a 4.67 FIP. He bounced back a bit in 2017, posting a 3.43 ERA in 16 starts with Oakland before being traded to the Yankees. Oakland got a solid haul of prospects headlined by Dustin Fowler, and the Yankees got a former ace. But Gray ended the season roughly for the Yankees with a 3.72 ERA/4.87 FIP in 11 starts after the trade. Last season things got even worse, as Gray posted a 5.26 ERA in 23 starts before being moved to the bullpen. Now, the Yankees seem to be extremely committed to moving him.
Gray just turned 29 and is entering his final year of arbitration after receiving $6.5 million last season. MLB Trade Rumors projects Gray to receive $9.1 million through arbitration, slightly above their projection for Wood’s final year of arb. Gray showed talent in the past and some glimpses of that talent during his struggles, so he might be a solid buy-low candidate heading into a season with a lot to prove.
The first number that jumps out at me is Gray’s home/road splits. Yankee Stadium does not seem like a fun park to pitch at and it certainly wasn’t for Gray last season. Opponents had a .932 OPS against Gray at Yankee Stadium last year (Nolan Arenado had a .935 OPS last season). Away from Yankee Stadium, batters had a .614 OPS against Gray. Only two qualified Major League batters had a lower OPS than .614 last season: Alcides Escobar and Chris Davis. Gray posted a 6.98 ERA at home with a 1.904 WHIP. On the road, he posted a 3.17 ERA and a 1.155 WHIP. Still not a great WHIP, but clearly he struggled more at Yankee Stadium. 11 of the 14 dongs Gray surrendered came at home. He threw nearly 12 more innings on the road than at home last season, but issued 13 more walks at home and struck out 33 fewer batters. It makes sense that the Yankees think a change of scenery is the best move for Gray, and a shift to LA might do him some good.
Early last season, FanGraphs’ Sheryl Ring wrote a post titled “The Yankees No-Fastball Approach Might Be Breaking Sonny Gray.” In the post, she talks about how the Yankees throw fastballs at a lower rate than other teams, and how that doesn’t play well with Gray’s four seam/sinker combo. Looking at FanGraphs’ pitch mix, last season Gray threw a fastball only 35.1 percent of the time. It had the highest average velocity of Gray’s career (93.3 MPH), but before last season Gray’s lowest fastball percentage in a season was 55.1 percent in 2017, when he spent the last couple months in New York. He had the highest slider and cutter percentage of his career, and his highest curveball percentage since 2014. Full disclosure, FanGraphs is a bit weird since it seems like some of the sinkers were classified as fastballs and some were classified as cutters, but that 20 percent drop-off in fastball use could be a hint as to why Gray struggled so much last year, especially at home.
Of course, Gray’s lack of success last year can’t all be blamed on his home park and different pitch usage. While he posted a 21.1 percent strikeout rate, which was better than his final three full seasons in Oakland, Gray also had a career-worst 9.8 percent walk rate, which was tied for the 10th-highest among starters with 130 innings or more. He threw a career-low 40.1 percent of pitches inside the strike zone, the 16th-lowest number in the majors, so his control last season was arguably the worst it’s ever been. That definitely could be due to pitch selection though, so while he pitched poorly last season, there’s reasons to think he still has something left in the tank.
A trade for Gray in The Year Of Our Lord 2018 is risky. You’re not trading for the Cy Young finalist and All-Star pitcher from 2015, but you also might not be trading for the Yankees version Gray, who wouldn’t be one of the seven best starters on the Dodgers. The risk does get minimized with his contract being over at the end of the season. If it fails, you wash your hands of him. If he pitches well heading into his free agent year, the Dodgers get a year of an extremely talented pitcher (and he’d still probably be the Dodgers’ fourth-best starter) and Gray gets a big payday next offseason.
The cost for Gray shouldn’t be too heavy. The Yankees’ most glaring need is at shortstop, as Didi Gregorius had Tommy John surgery. Obviously Corey Seager is off the table, and both Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernandez are too valuable for a one-year lottery ticket. The Dodgers also don’t really have any other major-league ready shortstop options to trade away.
So what could a deal look like? Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe wrote about a possible Gray trade. He pointed out five potential destinations that were not the Dodgers, but wrote the following:
It won’t cost any of the top guys, but a few mid-level prospects should be able to bring Gray to LA. Whether or not that’s a good idea is a completely different conversation, but the Dodgers haven’t been afraid to take on risks, especially on players with one-year contracts. Gray’s name value is probably worth more than the pitcher he is today, but there’s reason to believe he can still make this team better.