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Yankees trade for Sonny Gray: The cherry on top of a rebuild sundae

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Get to know the Yankees’ best acquisition since first rebuilding.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Think about where the Yankees were just a year and a half ago. While their 2016 season collapsed before their eyes, look at how much has changed since then. Mark Teixeira is gone, and (hopefully) Greg Bird is on the way. Brian McCann is gone, and Gary Sanchez is here to stay. Aaron Judge is a superstar. Michael Pineda’s Yankees career is over. Jordan Montgomery and Luis Severino became staples of the rotation.

They also traded Aroldis Chapman (and then re-signed him) and Andrew Miller for what has become the steal of the century, bringing back both Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier.

Now here we are, the 2017 trade deadline is over, and Brian Cashman and the Yankees have also added David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Todd Frazier, and...Sonny Gray.

Think about that for a second: after having their prospects whither away just a year ago, they’ve added a competent third baseman, two elite or semi-elite relievers, and a number two starter. They are playoff contenders, and Gray is the final piece of a World Series Caliber™ team. Let’s get to know the newest Yankee, because he’s going to be around through the 2019 season.

Sonny Gray was born to Cindy and Jesse Gray on November 4, 1989 in Nashville, Tennessee. Early in his childhood his family moved to Smyrna, Tennessee, which is where he really learned how to play baseball. In high school he essentially pitched to a sub-1.00 ERA, and he was also an excellent football player, winning Gatorade Player of the Year in his junior and senior years. He was drafted by the Cubs in the 27th round of the 2008 draft, but went to Vanderbilt instead.

At Vanderbilt he was originally a reliever, but eventually emerged as their ace—on a College World Series contending team no less—and pitched to a 2.43 ERA in his junior year. He was drafted by the Athletics 18th overall in the 2011 draft and signed for a $1.54 million signing bonus.

His professional career has had its downs, but mostly ups. Let’s start with that. After catapulting through the system in just two seasons, he made his major league debut on July 10, 2013, replacing Dan Straily on the roster. He was briefly sent back down, but made his first start on August 10th against Mark Buehrle. From that moment on, he was an important part of the roster.

The first three years of his career were almost otherworldly, ending his 2015 year finishing third in the Cy Young voting. From 2013 to 2015, he had a 133 ERA+ with a WHIP of just 1.134. 2016, though, is where the negatives began. He missed most of that season with forearm issues, and it put his mechanics and flow out of whack. He ended that year with an abysmal 5.69 ERA.

This year it seems like he’s mostly back to his old ways, but with some significant differences. Jeff Sullivan put it very well a couple of weeks ago, detailing this new version of Gray:

Sonny Gray, right now, is an effective starting pitcher, yet he isn’t quite what he was in 2014 or 2015. He’s come away from his arm problems with a different style, and it’s hard to tell whether his breaking ball is all that consistent. These are just some of the countless factors teams will have to consider as they negotiate. It’s easy to think of Gray as a cost-controlled ace, because we used to think of him as a cost-controlled ace. I don’t know how much it matters anymore what we used to think of him.

There’s the crux of the whole debate. What you think about Gray moving forward largely depends on a very small sample—this year in particular. He absolutely is not the pitcher he was three years ago, but he’s still very, very good. With his arm and lat troubles hopefully behind him, he’s still about as good as Masahiro Tanaka was during his best stretches.

I’m sure there are a lot of people who loved the deal, and I’m sure there are some who just preferred to have James Kaprielian, Dustin Fowler, and Jorge Mateo. I can’t quibble either way because Gray is an incredibly good pitcher, those are very good prospects, and I’m sure they will service Oakland well.

If you look at Gray’s history, grinding his way from high school to the ace of Vanderbilt then to the ace of the Athletics, and then bouncing back from injury concerns, he’s battle-tested and ready. The Yankees’ revamping process is over, and so is Gray’s. They’re both back and better than ever, and their paths are both inextricably tied and barreling towards October.