Just as the Rays are reportedly listening to trade offers on Blake Snell to see if someone will bowl them over, the Reds are performing their own due diligence and at least listening to offers on right-hander Sonny Gray, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports. It’s important to note that there’s no indication Cincinnati is actively shopping Gray. However, Rosenthal adds that the Reds are seeking to pare back payroll in 2021, and it’s possible that a Gray trade could fill other needs on the big league roster while simultaneously lowering overall expenditures.
Gray, who just turned 31 earlier this month, would immediately stand out as one of most coveted arms in the game, although the price to acquire him would likely be reflective of that reality. He’s thrived since being traded to Cincinnati, posting a 3.07 ERA and 3.33 FIP with a 50.9 percent grounder rate and averages of 10.8 strikeouts, 3.7 walks and 0.82 home runs per nine innings pitched.
On top of that excellent performance, Gray is owed an eminently affordable $10MM in each of the next two seasons before the Reds (or another club) make the decision on a $12MM club option for the 2023 campaign. In a market that has remained strong for starting pitchers, at least early on, the appeal of Gray’s contract is all the more apparent. Already, we’ve seen Robbie Ray ($8MM with the Blue Jays), Drew Smyly ($11MM, Braves) and Charlie Morton ($15MM, Braves) command sizable one-year pacts.
Any package for Gray would surely need to be focused on MLB-ready talent. The Reds only just emerged from a years-long rebuilding effort and aren’t looking to tear things down by any account. That said, even with Trevor Bauer coming off the books, payroll could be tight. The Reds are looking at salary hikes for first-time arbitration players like Luis Castillo, Jesse Winker, Tyler Mahle and Amir Garrett. Others due raises in arbitration include catcher Curt Casali, righty Michael Lorenzen and trade deadline pickups Brian Goodwin and Archie Bradley.
The Reds also already have $101.375MM guaranteed to Joey Votto, Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, Eugenio Suarez, Wade Miley, Raisel Iglesias, Tucker Barnhart and Gray. The projected salaries of their arbitration class could push that sum north by another $24MM or so, depending on non-tenders, and they’ll have to round out the roster with pre-arbitration players.
All in all, the Reds are likely looking at a payroll north of $130MM for the second straight season. Considering last year’s roughly $134MM Opening Day payroll (prior to prorated salaries) was already a franchise record, it’s not a shock that ownership is looking for ways to reduce spending without completely punting on competing in what should be a rather wide-open, four-team division race.
Remaining competitive would be the tricky part. Castillo gives the Reds a legitimate top-of-the-rotation presence even without Gray or Bauer present, and Miley has long been a durable source of innings. Lorenzen hopes to move into next year’s rotation, and Mahle had a solid 2020 showing. Still, it’d be a precipitous drop to go from a playoff rotation of Bauer, Gray and Castillo to a top three of Castillo, Miley and Mahle. The Reds could always add rotation help either as part of the return package for Gray or via the free-agent market, but arms of his caliber aren’t going to be available at a $10MM annual rate.
As for Gray’s potential market, he’d draw widespread interest, and history can provide a guide for a few potential fits. The Padres, Brewers and Twins were linked to Gray when the Yankees made it clear they were shopping him after the 2018 season — much different circumstances than at present. The Rangers were reported to have interest as well, although they’re unlikely to be in the mix now that they’re focusing on a youth movement.
Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, meanwhile, was a member of the Athletics front office when Gray was drafted 18th overall and developed there, and we know San Francisco is looking for rotation help. The Blue Jays have also been in the hunt for rotation help and aren’t facing the type of payroll constraints felt by many of their rivals. The Angels seem to be perennially searching for starting pitching upgrades. Others would undoubtedly enter the fray.
It bears repeating that this appears to be a far different scenario than when Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said in 2018 that he was “open-minded to relocation” for Gray and conceded it was “probably best [for Gray] to try somewhere else.” Gray’s stock has skyrocketed since that time, and without some combination of MLB-ready young talent (ideally at shortstop and in the rotation), it’s hard to imagine a trade actually coming together. Even then, this would be a difficult trade to make for a Reds team intent on contending, but other clubs will be motivated to try to make them consider the possibility.