The Braves haven’t made a big deal yet – and I’m still in the feels about the Jonny Venters one, which Stephen went over a couple of days ago. But to this point, Atlanta hasn’t wowed anyone with a big pick-up. They’re certainly has been rumors. Zack Wheeler, Adrian Beltre, Chris Archer, Nick Castellanos, and Marcus Stroman have all been thrown around as possible players the Braves have interest in. I looked deeper into Stroman recently. Other since-traded players like Mike Moustakas and Cole Hamels have also been rumored targets.
Add Sonny Gray to the mix of names the Braves supposedly have interest in after a source puts a Braves scout in New York for Gray’s most recent start, according to NJ.com’s Brandan Kuty. Now…let’s unpack this because this one came out of nowhere.
Last year, the Braves were often mentioned as a possible landing spot for Gray after the A’s put him on the block. Ultimately, it was the Yankees with a package of three prospects – two of which currently rank #7 and #9 on the A’s Top 30 Pipeline. The third, Dustin Fowler, was a Top 100 prospect at the time of the trade as well. Considering the relatively light returns on big-time assets we’ve seen so far this year, that return looks massive. But Gray had one thing that guys like Moustakas and Hamels didn’t have – control.
Giving up major prospects for a player who will hit free agency after the season is hard to swallow. But if the team can bring that asset back for year or two, presumably during a window of contending, that’s an easier sell. At the time, Gray had 2+ years of team control before hitting free agency following the 2019 season.
Now, it would be unusual for the Yankees to want to trade off Gray right now – considering their rotation isn’t exactly killing it right now and they are attached to most of the big starters on the market even after acquiring J.A. Happ. They could look at dealing Gray as a way to improve their current rotation. How’s that? By repackaging prospects acquired for Gray to pick up a better arm. They are apparently very interested in Archer, but then, who isn’t?
But the problem there is Gray’s value has declined since the Yankees gave up three players who’ve all ranked in a Top 100 before the trade. Part of that is due to there being less control over Gray’s future now that a year has passed. But Gray has also struggled as a member of the Yankees. His ERA is a run higher, his FIP similarly so, and his walk rate and homer-rate have both increased. The biggest culprit of this decreased performance may be his groundball rate. As an A, it was well over 50%. It’s been slightly under since. That means more flyballs and in a stadium that punishes pitchers who yield flyballs, that’s not a recipe for success.
That’s not to say Gray hasn’t had value. When you take in account where he plays, he’s still on pace for a two-win season. Not what the Yankees were expecting for the players they surrendered, but also not a waste. And Gray’s 5.08 ERA does come with a 4.32 FIP/4.24 xFIP – marks that are better than last summer with the Yankees when his ERA was 3.72 and many called the deal a good one for the Yankees. Furthermore, take Gray away from that bandbox they call Yankee Stadium and his FIP is 2.83 and his xFIP is 3.38 this season.
Now, take him away from Yankee Stadium for good and plop him down in the NL East in a ballpark that, despite early talk of it being the new Launching Pad, carries ballpark factors that favor pitchers and give him one of the best defenses in baseball. The Yankees are a good defense, but they have 15 DRS while Atlanta has 40. It’s easy to see why the Braves have interest.
Let’s go a little deeper here into the Yankees with Gray. To try to counteract their little league park, the Yankees have bought into the cutter after C.C. Sabathia turned his career around using it. I mentioned this pitch in a recent article about Anibal Sanchez and the big takeaway is if the cutter is working, it has a tendency to lead to softer contact which leads to more outs. This is more theory because there is conflicting data, though there was talk about this subject earlier in the season. In terms of Pitch Type, provided by Baseball Info Solutions, we can one selection of data that runs counter to “Pitch Info Pitch Type” which comes from BrooksBaseball. Statcast seems to agree with Brooks Baseball in classifications, by the way.
Pitch Type says after rarely throwing his cutter as an A, he’s throwing it 21.6% now. BrooksBaseball says he is continuing to rarely throw the pitch. The other big change here is that the cutter usage under Pitch Type is a direct result of decreased fastball usage at around 20%. BrooksBaseball splits up the fastball usage and says four-seamer usage is down 5% while sinker usage is down 4%. The big change for BrooksBaseball is in curveball usage, which Pitch Type also charts as up.
This runs with information we already have – that the Yankees are pushing fewer fastballs from their starters. If true, Gray is throwing his cutter more and it’s not a great pitch. In terms of pitch values, the cutter and his changeup are ranked worst. Worst, his fastball and slider, which used to be his top two offerings (he actually throws two fastballs), have decreased in value as well.
Why did I mention all this? Because a simple change could go a long way. Drop the cutter or at least severely limit its usage. The cutter is not an easy pitch to just add to your arsenal. It can take a few years to really master. Go back to four-seamers and two-seamers over 55% of the time – which is where he was at before coming to the Yanks – and sprinkle in the slider and curveball. His changeup is not good, but he also doesn’t use it often. It, like the cutter, is a third-time-through-the-order pitch used to show the batter something different.
By the way, if it means anything, Gray has been outstanding in his last three starts. In 16.1 innings, he’s allowed two runs, walked six, and struck out 19. Now, let’s not go crazy because he was facing the Orioles, Mets, and Royals – but success is success.
We now have a battle plan on how to use and maximize Gray for the Braves, but there’s still that nagging cost – and I don’t mean the close to $10 million he’d earn in his final year in arbitration. What should the Braves surrender?
Well, the Yankees can’t expect an equal return on what they surrendered 12 months ago. But this is also not going to be a Mark Teixeira trade where the Braves gave up a boatload to acquire him and only got back Casey Kotchman and a minor league reliever in return when they sold him off. The Yankees still have a year of control. You can go the quantity-way and try to send a few Top 30 prospects like Alex Jackson and Freddy Tarnok with a wildcard like Ricardo Sanchez or keep the depth and send a higher-rated starter like Kolby Allard to the Yankees for Gray. Remember, this is under the pretense that the Yankees will then use that player to acquire another higher-rated starter.
Of course, this argument exists – why help the Yankees acquire an Archer or Stroman? Why not do that yourself? It’s a fair argument and it’s why I’d rather trade prospect depth rather than a Top 10 guy for Gray. Keep your options plentiful to make a bigger splash and acquire an Archer or Stroman as well. And it’s not impossible, by the way. Say you add Stroman and Gray and you’ve surrendered Allard, Jackson, Sanchez, Ian Anderson, and some other guys with Allard/Anderson headlining the trade for Stroman. Now, you enter the last two months with a rotation with Stroman, Gray, Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, and Anibal Sanchez or Julio Teheran (with the other arm in the pen as a long reliever for the summer). You’ve remade the rotation not only for 2018 but for 2019.
Now, add Toussaint to the bullpen for the rest of the year and add a bullpen arm via a trade and suddenly, the pitching staff looks much improved. Is it enough to make the Braves a favorite to win the World Series? Maybe not, but it does two things – makes the Braves a tougher team and a better playoff contender now and gives them a head start in building the 2019 ballclub that will hopefully be even better.
In full disclosure, I’m not even sure this is the best approach for the Braves. What I do know is it does make them better and Atlanta will still be rich in arms in the farm system. That’s not too shabby.