The Astros have been known to be seeking rotation upgrades for much of the offseason, and while the team’s pursuit of White Sox lefty Jose Quintana hasn’t gained much traction, FOX’s Ken Rosenthal tweets that Houston as also maintained contact with the Athletics regarding right-hander Sonny Gray.
The 27-year-old Gray is a season removed from his status as a burgeoning young ace. The 2013-15 campaigns saw the former Vanderbilt standout and first-round pick pitch to a pristine 2.88 ERA with 7.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a 54.2 percent ground-ball rate in 491 innings. Gray topped 200 innings in both 2014 and 2015, his age-24 and age-25 seasons, and finished third in AL Cy Young balloting during that ’15 campaign.
Impressive as that stretch was, a disastrous 2016 campaign has made Gray a tough asset to value. Gray had two separate DL stints — one for a right trapezius strain and one for a strained right forearm — in 2016 and was ultimately limited to 117 innings. The results in that shortened sample were hardly encouraging, either, as Gray’s ERA soared to 5.69 while his strikeout rate dipped slightly, and his BB/9 rate rose to 3.2 (up from 2.6 a year prior). Despite throwing just 56 percent of the innings he totaled in 2015, Gray allowed more home runs in 2016, setting a new career-worst with 18.
Suffice it to say, red flags abound when looking at Gray’s 2016 campaign. Yet, if that season is chalked up largely to injury and a team believes the issues won’t linger into future seasons, then Gray again becomes a wildly appealing asset. He’s controlled via arbitration for the next three seasons, and his 2016 struggles actually suppressed his salary in his first trip through the arbitration process. Gray agreed to terms with the A’s on a one-year deal worth $3.575MM last Friday, so he’d be affordable for any team and bring legitimate front-of-the-rotation upside to his new environs.
The problem, of course, is that it’s doubtful any team will overlook Gray’s calamitous 2016 season and assume he’ll experience a full rebound in 2017 and beyond. Those that have contacted the Athletics about Gray have likely done so in an effort to buy low on the talented righty, but there’s little incentive for Oakland to sell low on him. Were Gray one year away from free agency, perhaps Oakland would feel more compelled to take the best offer it received, but with another three years of club control remaining, the A’s can afford to wait for Gray to restore some value. Even if Gray is ultimately traded before he reaches free agency, the A’s could get plenty of value for him this summer, next offseason or even two offseasons from now, should his performance trend back upward.
That the Astros play in the same division as the A’s only further complicates the matter. Teams are often loath to trade anyone, especially one of the faces of their franchise, to a division rival, and that could come into play here. Oakland and Houston, of course, have matched up on a number of deals in the past. Houston GM Jeff Luhnow and Oakland president of baseball ops Billy Beane have twice lined up on trades sending Jed Lowrie from Houston to Oakland, and the Astros also acquired southpaw Scott Kazmir from the A’s in exchange for prospects Jacob Nottingham and Daniel Mengden back in July 2015 (as can be seen in MLBTR’s Transaction Tracker).