Sonny Gray was supposed to be the Yankees’ number two pitcher behind Luis Severino. Prior to his midseason trade to New York last year, he had been one of the best young arms in baseball for the Athletics. Sure, he had an awful 2016, but he recovered and then some in the first half of 2017, pitching 97 innings with a 3.25 ERA. Gray was going to solidify the rotation not just for 2017, but for 2018 and beyond.
Instead, Sonny Gray became a long reliever while the Yankees replaced him in the rotation with Lance freaking Lynn.
Yankees trade for promising young starter, he ends up a dud, we all get riled up. If that story sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Sonny Gray is but the latest in a recent line of promising young starters who the Yankees traded for, but just didn’t work out.
Before Gray, there was Nathan Eovaldi. Acquired along with 2015 Yankee legend Garrett Jones and Domingo German from the Miami Marlins for Martin Prado and David Phelps in the 2014-15 offseason, Eovaldi had both elite velocity and gaudy peripherals despite a mediocre strikeout rate and ERA. His first season in New York was promising, as he pitched to a 3.42 FIP and a 0.58 HR/9 in 154.1 innings. Though his season was cut short due to elbow inflammation, many thought he and his brand-new splitter would finally bridge the gap between his ERA and FIP in 2016.
Narrator voice: They did not. Eovaldi finished the 2016 season with a 4.76 ERA and an even worse 4.98 FIP, underwent Tommy John surgery, and missed the entirety of the 2017 season. The Yankees released Eovaldi in November, and he was picked up by the Rays, where he made 10 starts before being traded again to the Red Sox, in a move which had absolutely no implications on the Yankees’ World Series hopes at all. Now excuse me while I go cry into my beer.
Before Eovaldi, there was Michael Pineda. In 2011 with the Seattle Mariners, Pineda had the third-highest K% among all AL starters while also having an above-average walk rate. The Yankees traded top prospect Jesus Montero for Pineda in the 2011-2012 offseason in one of the saddest trades of all time. Pineda missed two seasons due to a shoulder injury and finished with a season ERA lower than 4.37 only once in his Yankee career. The Yankees still won the trade because Jesus Montero was absolutely worthless.
But enough about Montero. This article is about failed starters, and Pineda fits the bill perfectly. Blessed with electric stuff and a K:BB ratio worthy of Kershaw, Pineda’s undoing was the long ball. Despite running a sparkling 0.59 HR/9 across 13 brilliant starts in 2014, Pineda’s HR/9 in the three years after that went from 1.18, to 1.38, and finally all the way up to 1.87. We’ll always have that Mother’s Day start, Pineda. That was awesome.
Sonny Gray, Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda. Do the stories of these pitchers suggest an inability to develop young arms on the Yankees’ part? Maybe, but the evidence is at best inconclusive. Three pitchers isn’t much of a sample size, and the Yankees have had some recent success with homegrown starters, namely Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery. On the other hand, the Houston Astros have demonstrated that there is a way - analytics - to coach underachieving pitchers into consistently generating better results. If the Yankees want to prevent the next Gray from happening, they should learn from Houston and invest even more heavily in their analytics department.
Another, perhaps simpler option would be to aim for more established or fully developed #1 starters via free agency or trade, instead of loading up on diamonds in the rough and hoping that one of them pans out. Sure, buying low on underachievers can be neat when they develop into low-cost stars, but when they don’t, you’re just left with a hole in your roster. Paying top dollar for a more established starter has its risks too, but in terms of results rather than cost efficiency - and really, why should the Yankees of all teams care about that? - it’s usually the safer bet.
What the Yankees absolutely cannot do is acquire another talented question mark and call it an offseason. The Yankees should acknowledge their, at best, checkered record with young starters acquired via trade. This is no time to get cheap and cute. With the likes of Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, and possibly Clayton Kershaw on the market, the Yankees should do what they have the ability to do better than anyone else: spend.