On this date three years ago, the Reds, Mariners and Yankees reached agreement on a complex deal. Not only was it a fairly uncommon three-team trade, the deal pushed across the finish line only when the most notable player involved agreed to a three-year contract extension with his new club.
As part of that January 21, 2019 agreement, the Reds landed Sonny Gray. Cincinnati agreed to take on the right-hander’s $7.5MM salary for that season and promised him an additional $30.5MM through 2022. (The deal also included a $12.5MM club option for 2023). The Reds also landed left-handed pitching prospect Reiver Sanmartín from New York. In exchange, they sent infielder Shed Long Jr. to Seattle, who flipped their recent second-round draftee, Josh Stowers, to the Yankees.
Gray, an All-Star and AL Cy Young award finalist in 2015, was the obvious headliner of the deal. After a generally strong run in Oakland, he was sent to the Yankees at the 2017 trade deadline. Yet Gray didn’t fare as well during his year-plus in the Bronx, posting a mediocre 4.51 ERA/4.40 FIP across 195 2/3 innings. He dealt with particular struggles in the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, managing a 6.55 ERA in home contests during his time in pinstripes.
The Reds identified Gray as a target as they neared the end of a rebuild that had landed them in the basement in the NL Central for four straight seasons. They were rewarded for that decision, as Gray immediately turned things around in his new environs. He twirled 175 1/3 frames with a 2.87 ERA during his first season with the Reds, earning his second All-Star nod and some down ballot Cy Young votes in the process. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference pegged Gray as the most valuable player on the team that year by Wins Above Replacement.
Gray’s excellent debut season wasn’t enough to get the Reds to the postseason, but Cincinnati did qualify for an expanded playoff the next year. His 56 innings of 3.70 ERA ball in the shortened season weren’t quite as impressive as his first-year numbers, but it was still solidly above-average output that contributed to a decent 31-29 team showing. The Reds didn’t make the playoffs over a full schedule last year, but Gray had another nice showing. The 32-year-old’s 4.19 ERA marked a bit of a step back, but a 27% strikeout rate, 47.2% ground-ball percentage and 3.85 SIERA suggest he may have been adversely affected by a poor defense behind him.
Cincinnati hasn’t had the team success they’d no doubt hoped to achieve over the past three seasons. That’s not any fault of Gray’s, though. Over 366 2/3 innings with the Reds, the Vanderbilt product has posted a 3.49 ERA/3.57 FIP, holding opposing hitters to a meager .208/.292/.345 line. Buying low after his struggles with the Yankees proved a shrewd move for former president Dick Williams, general manager Nick Krall, and the rest of the Cincinnati front office.
It remains to be seen whether Gray’s tenure with the Reds is finished. He’s still controllable for two seasons under the terms of the extension he signed at the time of the trade. The organization may be looking to cut payroll after the lockout, and Gray perhaps offers the best blend of recent productivity, availability in trade and 2022 salary (around $10.167MM) of anyone on the roster.
Whether Gray winds up dealt for a third time or opens next season in Cincinnati, the deal counts as a win for the Reds in retrospect. In fact, of the three prospects involved in the trade, Sanmartín is the only one who remains with the club that acquired him. He made his first two MLB starts during the final week of last season and could be a depth starter or long reliever for Cincinnati this year.
The other two prospects — Long and Stowers — were more well-regarded than Sanmartín at the time of the trade. Neither emerged as a long-term option in their new organizations, though. Long tallied 412 plate appearances over three years with Seattle. He hit well as a rookie but struggled between 2020-21, dealing with recurring injury issues around his right shin. Outrighted off the Mariners 40-man roster at the end of last season, the 26-year-old elected minor league free agency and has yet to sign elsewhere. Long figures to get another opportunity — even if just via minors pact — and he’s young enough to have a real chance at turning things around, but he didn’t make the kind of impact in Seattle their front office no doubt hoped he would.
Stowers, meanwhile, has yet to crack the majors. He spent two years in the New York farm system, then was traded to the Rangers last April as part of the deal that sent Rougned Odor to the Bronx. The 24-year-old outfielder (25 next month) then hit .220/.311/.466 across 351 plate appearances in Double-A. Not added to the Texas 40-man roster after the season, he’ll be eligible for selection in the Rule 5 draft once the lockout wraps up. As with Long, it’s far too early to close the books on Stowers’ career, but he’ll be available to the rest of the league for little more than an active roster spot in the coming months.
The deal also netted the Yankees the Reds’ Competitive Balance pick in the upcoming draft. New York used that selection (#38 overall) to nab left-hander T.J. Sikkema from the University of Missouri. Sikkema, who missed the entire 2021 campaign due to injury, was ranked by Baseball America as the #23 prospect in the Yankees’ system midseason. Between the lost minor league season in 2020 and last year’s injury-wrecked campaign, he’s still yet to advance to full season ball. Sikkema will be eligible for next offseason’s Rule 5 draft if not added to the New York 40-man roster, making the 2022 campaign a particularly important one for his future in the organization.
Note: This article was updated to reflect that the Yankees also acquired a Competitive Balance Selection from the Reds.