Right-hander Sonny Gray is coming off the worst season of his career, and while that has his stock at a low point, Gray nonetheless tells Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that he is open to a long-term deal and has made that known to the Athletics on multiple occasions.
“The way this year went, you never know what would come out of that,” said Gray to Slusser. “On my side, obviously, I’d love for it to be brought up or whatnot. But that’s never been the case. And if it’s not here sometime, I don’t know that it’s worth doing.” Of course, while Gray’s negotiating power is at an all-time low at the moment — a potentially favorable time for the A’s to secure him — there’s also the possibility that the trapezius strain and forearm strain which have plagued him in 2016 will have lingering and/or compounding effects that lead to continued ineffectiveness.
An All-Star and a Cy Young candidate in 2015, Gray struggled through a dismal 2016 campaign, twice landing on the disabled list and recording a 5.74 ERA with 7.2 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and a 54.3 percent ground-ball rate. The strikeout and walk rates were the worst of the 26-year-old’s career (albeit just barely in the case of the strikeout rate), and Gray showed a marked increase in hard-hit balls and home runs against him. Gray yielded just 36 home runs through 491 frames in his first three big league seasons — an average of 0.66 homers per nine innings. This season, though, he allowed 50 percent of his previous career total (18) in just 116 innings of work — an average of 1.4 homers per nine.
Gray’s home run spike occurred without a dramatic increase in his number of fly-balls allowed (indeed, his ground-ball rate was actually the second-best of his career), meaning he simply had an inordinately high number of his fly-balls leave the yard. While homer-to-flyball rate tends to fluctuate on a year-to-year basis, thus creating some hope that there’s an element of randomness to this season’s struggles, a look at Gray’s heatmaps from 2016 and 2015 (via Fangraphs) illustrates that he left a considerably larger number of fastballs out over the plate for opposing hitters this season. That slip in location — also evident in his elevated walk rate — wasn’t the sole cause of all of the homers he yielded but did lead to much better success against his fastball (.861 opponent OPS in 2016 compared to .753 in 2015). All of that could potentially be due to his injuries, but if there’s another factor at play (or if the A’s have trepidation his ability to return at full strength in 2017), the prospect of a long-term deal becomes considerably riskier.
This offseason will mark Gray’s first trip through arbitration, and he can be controlled through the 2019 season via that process. As it stands, the Bo McKinnis client projects to hit the open market as he prepares to enter his age-30 season — an age at which many pitchers still fetch lucrative free-agent deals ranging between four and seven years of length. Signing a long-term pact with the A’s that buys out free agent years would mean forgoing that opportunity, though he’d be doing so in exchange for immediate financial security.
From the Athletics’ vantage point, Slusser notes, there’s simply the matter of whether they could afford to lock Gray or any of their other key contributors up at all. (Slusser lists Stephen Vogt, Khris Davis and Marcus Semien as other potential candidates, though none of the bunch specifically discussed a willingness to sign in the manner that Gray did, hence the focus on him in this writing.) The A’s can ill afford to miss on long-term contracts, as their prospects for either securing a new stadium or moving to another city which affords the same opportunity aren’t encouraging at the moment. And, the upcoming wave of collective bargaining negotiations could impact league-wide revenue sharing, which could potentially bring a significant blow to the Athletics’ payroll capacity as well.
The A’s have already whiffed on one large contract, as Billy Butler’s three-year, $30MM deal has looked regrettable from the get-go. Interestingly, Slusser writes that “[t]here is no chance” that Butler will be back in 2017, though the A’s aren’t likely to receive much in the way of salary relief even if they find a trade partner, as Butler has batted just .258/.325/.394 in his two seasons wearing green and gold.
While payroll capacity will certainly be a factor in any potential extension talks with Gray, so too will the fact that there aren’t many comparables in recent years. Typically, starting pitchers that ink extensions do so earlier in their careers. Via MLBTR’s Extension Tracker, Lance Lynn and Wade Miley are the only two starters Gray’s service class that have signed contracts of three or more years in the past five years. Both pitchers signed away only three guaranteed years (their three arbitration years), though Miley’s deal does contain a club option for a fourth. Miley’s deal affords him a guaranteed $19.25MM, whereas Lynn’s three arbitration years went for $22MM. Either of those deals could serve as a theoretical blueprint for the arbitration years in an extension, but the difficulty the A’s will likely face would be finding an agreeable price for any free-agent years that an extension would cover. While Oakland would rightly bring up Gray’s lackluster performance and injuries in the 2016 season, his camp would almost certainly be looking more at Gray’s 2013-15 excellence when trying to establish a price point. Finding a balance between those two vantage points doesn’t figure to be an easy task.
As Slusser points out, though, had Gray pitched a full, healthy season for the Athletics, they may never have even had the opportunity to extend him at all. Another sub-3.00 ERA would have Gray on track for a substantial first-time arbitration salary and on a clear course for a $100MM+ contract in free agency. That’s less certain now, and that bit of unknown could work in the Athletics’ favor. That’s not lost on GM David Forst, who tells Slusser: “You never want to take advantage of a player, but in the course of business negotiations, if you take a look at a player who isn’t at his peak, that is potentially better for the club.”