Two weeks ago, Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post reported that the Rockies had made an unsuccessful extension offer to Jon Gray. Nick Groke and Eno Sarris of the Athletic shed a little more light on that effort, reporting that Colorado made a three-year offer in the $35-40MM range.
With extension overtures rejected, Gray is now set to hit the open market once the World Series wraps up this week. Groke and Sarris write that the Rox are likely to issue him an $18.4MM qualifying offer, which would entitle the club to draft pick compensation were he to sign elsewhere. Qualified free agents have ten days to decide whether to accept or reject the QO, so Gray and his representatives at CAA Sports will have some time to gauge interest before making the call on whether to return to Denver for a strong one-year salary or reject in hopes of landing a stronger multi-year offer.
Gray will be one of the trickier evaluations for teams looking through the market for free agent starters. The right-hander has two seasons with a sub-4.00 ERA on his resume, no small feat for a pitcher who calls Coors Field home. Outside of a terrible eight-start showing during last year’s shortened season, Gray has regularly posted strikeout rates a tick or two above the league average for starters. He’s put up similarly solid walk and ground-ball marks in recent years, and his 2021 campaign was largely par for the course.
Over 149 frames, Gray pitched to a 4.59 ERA with a slightly above-average 24.4% strikeout percentage and a 9% walk rate that’s a bit north of the league mark. Gray’s 11% swinging strike rate was almost exactly league average, while his 48.4% grounder percentage was a few points above par. That’s solid mid-rotation production, and there’s an argument to be made that he could yet have untapped upside.
A former #3 overall draft choice, Gray averaged 94.9 MPH on his heater. He backs that up with a slider that typically generates plenty of swings and misses. Gray will be entering his age-30 season, so rival clubs will surely be intrigued about the potential that power arsenal could wield outside of the league’s toughest environment for pitchers.
That said, there’s an argument that Gray has been less adversely effected by Coors Field than most. As Groke and Sarris explore in a piece that’ll be of interest to Rockies’ fans or those more generally interested in pitching, Gray’s primary combination of a low-spin fastball and slider seems most resistant to high altitude’s impact on pitch movements. Like any Rockies’ pitcher, Gray still has to contend against a home park that props up fly ball distances and has an expansive outfield (thus increasing the rate of hits allowed on balls in play), but his results may not be as inflated by the environment as those of some of his teammates. His ERA at home this year (4.02) was more than a full run lower than his road mark (5.22), in fact, although his home/road strikeout and walk splits were virtually identical.
Teams will be tasked with placing Gray amongst the third tier of free agent starters. Eduardo Rodríguez, Anthony DeSclafani, Steven Matz and Alex Wood are among the other mid-rotation options who’ll be available to clubs this winter. There figures to be quite a bit of variability among the league’s 30 clubs as to how they’d arrange that group on preference lists.
Of course, Gray could yet return to Colorado, whether by accepting a QO or agreeing to a multi-year free agent deal. Gray and the Rockies expressed mutual interest in an extension on multiple occasions over the past few months, and the front office didn’t move him at this past summer’s trade deadline. The Rox have already hammered out multi-year deals with rotation mate Antonio Senzatela (buying out his final two years of arbitration and extending their window of club control by an additional four seasons) and fellow impending free agent C.J. Cron. With the club planning to increase player payroll over the next two years, it stands to reason they’ll remain involved in the market for Gray as well.