Yankees Transaction Trees: Sonny Gray

Feb 1, 2023 - 7:30 PM
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Sonny Gray throws a pitch against the Minnesota Twins in September 2018. He was dealt to the Reds a few months later. | Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

This weekend, I wrote about Justus Sheffield, who was recently outrighted by the Mariners despite being the centerpiece of two big Yankees trades. Running through all of the players involved in the two Sheffield swaps, I began thinking of other players both traded to and from the Yankees across multiple loaded deals, and I decided to start a series of articles about the subject: Transaction Trees. Aside from Sheffield, the most prominent example of such a player in recent years is probably Sonny Gray, so he seemed as good a player as any to start with.

Gray’s tenure in pinstripes was a bit of a rollercoaster, both on and off the field. If Sheffield’s Bronx exit was an instance of the Yankees selling high, Gray’s departure was undoubtedly a buy-low opportunity for the Reds (who acquired him). But at the same time, the Yankees deserve credit for dealing Gray themselves, for not falling prey to the sunk-cost fallacy and trying to ride out a contract that was clearly a poor fit for both player and team.

Yet when the Yankees first acquired Gray at the 2017 trade deadline, hopes were high. Despite a down 2016, the next year Gray had tossed 97 innings of 3.43 ERA ball before being dealt. Up to the deadline, he had also posted healthy groundball (56.7 percent), strikeout (23.5 percent), and walk (7.5 percent) rates. This performance was right in line with his career numbers, if not slightly better, so it’s hard to blame the Yankees for thinking the trend would continue.

Things went OK from the get-go, as Gray yielded a 3.72 ERA over 65.1 innings the rest of the way. This ERA mark belied some worsening rate stats, however, as his grounder rate dropped 9.4 percent, his K-rate dropped 2.3 percent, and his walk rate went up 2.2 percent. In the playoffs that year, Gray allowed four runs in 8.1 innings but walked as many as he struck out (six), foretelling his struggles the next season.

The rails came off in 2018, as Gray’s 4.90 ERA and 11.3 percent K-BB rate were the second-worst marks of his career. While his BABIP at .326 was a career-high, it wasn’t all bad luck: his xERA, which takes into account quality of contact, was still elevated at 4.42. He also allowed a 22.9 percent line drive rate, his highest full-season mark. Gray failed to even stick in the starting rotation for the whole season.

The right-hander’s relationship with the team broke down rapidly and publicly upon the season’s conclusion. Yankees GM Brian Cashman openly discussed the club’s desire to trade Gray that winter. After the trade occurred, Gray bemoaned the Yankees’ reliance on the slider in an interview. There might be something to that, as FanGraphs’ Sheryl Ring chalked up his poor performance to an increased reliance on secondary pitches to begin the season, and Gray did improve in a relief role at the end of the year by using more fastballs. Whatever the reason though, it was clear that the marriage just wasn’t meant to be.

But what did the Yankees sacrifice to try and make it happen? Their fourth, sixth, and seventh-ranked prospects. Jorge Mateo, the speedy and slick-fielding sixth-ranked prospect, has been the most productive of the bunch, putting up 2.8 WAR last season. But it’s hard to blame the Yankees for not realizing his upside, as the A’s and then Padres both had Mateo and passed him up too; only years later has he done his damage for the Orioles. James Kaprielian, who was ranked fourth, has put up 257 slightly below-average innings for the A’s, netting 1.4 WAR and allowing a 4.20 ERA. Dustin Fowler, who’s out of baseball at the moment, managed just a 67 wRC+ in 203 plate appearances for the A’s.

While the Yankees may not have been particularly attached to any of these prospects, and largely for good reason, they still could have made better use of their resources and dealt them for someone who was a better fit than Gray. That’s what made the Yankees' next move so important, and the fact that they could recoup any sort of value from Gray impressive.

The Yankees dealt the right-hander, along with prospect Reiver Sanmartin, to the Reds in exchange for Shed Long Jr. and a competitive balance pick. Sanmartin has so far tossed 68.2 innings of 5.50 ERA ball for the Reds, so he’s not looking like a major loss. The competitive balance pick turned into T.J. Sikkema, who the Yankees dealt (along with others) for Andrew Benintendi at last year’s trade deadline; despite his injury, Benintendi was one of the team’s more productive deadline acquisitions and Sikkema limped to a 7.44 ERA for the Royals’ Double-A affiliate the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, the Yankees dealt Long Jr. right away, which turned out to be the correct decision as the infielder has put up a paltry 82 wRC+ in 417 plate appearances and is now out of a job. They turned him into Josh Stowers, who they eventually traded to Texas for Rougned Odor. As a 25-year-old in Double-A last year, Stowers put up an 85 wRC+. Ouch, yes, but Odor himself only put up an 83 mark in his lone season for the Bombers, though he managed to claw his way to 1.4 WAR due to strong defense and baserunning. The Yankees ultimately released Odor, and funnily enough, he ended up being Mateo’s double-play partner for most of last season.

Odor helped the Yankees make up for a Luke Voit injury in 2021. That isn’t the kind of value you’d ultimately want to derive from three top-10 prospects, but it was the best the Yanks could do considering how much Gray’s stock had fallen. Though he has indeed pitched much better since his departure from the Bronx, I’m not convinced he would have rebounded had he stayed due to the lingering tension between him and the team. The Yankees had to orchestrate a similar move with Joey Gallo this year, further demonstrating their willingness to deal acquisitions that just aren’t cutting it, even at a diminished price. Let’s hope that Clayton Beeter, their return for Gallo, pans out, even if at just an Odor-esque level.

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