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Reflections on the Yankees’ trade for Sonny Gray

The deal looks to be a failure for both the Yankees, and the Athletics.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Jeff Griffith-USA TODAY Sports

The Sonny Gray Era in New York seems to be coming to an end. Brian Cashman outright admitted in his State of the Organization presser that the team is trying to trade the mercurial right-hander. Given the very basic notion of leverage, it’s hard to imagine Cashman would be so open about a trade unless the player himself requested one, or at least held a discussion about it. As often happens when something approaches its end, I find myself reflecting on the beginning.

I was a fan of the Gray trade initially. Cashman traded three prospects, two of whom were both recovering from season-ending injury, for a young, talented pitcher with a few years of control and playoff experience to boot. The experiment went just fine in 2017 – Gray posted a 3.72 ERA in his eleven starts in the second half of the season. His peripherals were concerning, but a lot of people, myself included, were willing to write that off as adjusting to a new, tougher division.

Turns out the peripherals were right after all. Sonny Gray immolated in 2018, and his terrible season is the primary cause of his apparently imminent departure from the Bronx. Ironically enough, his peripherals indicate he perhaps wasn’t as bad as he played, with a FIP ¾ of a run lower than his ERA, and his strikeout rate and HR rate actually better than last year. Baseball loves its little jokes.

Meanwhile, the previously mentioned prospects sent to Oakland have disappointed too. Dustin Fowler was in one way the most MLB-ready player in the package, if it weren’t for that horrific patella tear he suffered in his first ever major league game. He logged almost 500 plate appearances between Triple-A and the MLB in 2018, and while he was great in Nashville, posting a 129 wRC+, he fell apart in the majors with just a 65 wRC+ in 203 plate appearances. He’s not the first prospect to struggle in his first taste of MLB action and he won’t be the last, but it’s certainly not an encouraging sign. He walked just 3.8% of the time combined between the minors and majors, and doesn’t have the raw power to compensate for low OBP totals.

James Kaprielian was probably the highest-ceiling prospect in the deal, generally projected to be a strong future #2, possibly even a top of rotation guy if everything went right. Injuries have cost him the last two years, and his last minor league game was in April 2016. He’s made just nine professional appearances since being drafted, and while he’s still the ninth-ranked prospect in the Oakland system, there’s a good chance he never pitches in the majors.

Finally, the Yankees traded infield/outfield hybrid Jorge Mateo. The Yankees tried to make Mateo a center fielder, but Oakland has been determined to keep him on the dirt, having him split time between second base and shortstop. Mateo still has good speed, stealing 49 bases over the last two minor league seasons, but seemed awfully overwhelmed playing a full year in Nashville. In 510 plate appearances, he worked a 62 wRC+, with just a .280 OBP. While currently the seventh-ranked prospect in the organization, Mateo is rapidly looking like a poor man’s Billy Hamilton, and without elite level defense in CF, Mateo just isn’t that valuable.

So Sonny Gray has been a loss for the Yankees in terms of his own performance, but nobody is trumpeting the deal as a big win for Billy Beane, either. Oakland still has time to recover some value. If Fowler can pull himself together and be an average MLB player, that alone is probably enough to call the deal even. Right now, though, it’s a good example of a trade that doesn’t particularly work for either team.

You’re free to speculate on the opportunity cost of the trade. What could Mateo, Fowler and Kap have brought back in a different deal? Clearly at least one team thought the package was worth a young, controllable starter, which is just about the most valuable asset in baseball. We’ll never know what could have been had the Yankees shopped that prospect trio around, but it’s fair to wonder if they could have ended up with more net positive performance than they’ve got from Sonny Gray.

Gray’s days in the Bronx are almost certainly numbered. Maybe the Brewers make a run at him to shore up a playoff team in need of starters. Maybe someone like the Pirates, with a fastball-heavy philosophy, thinks Gray is a better fit than he was in the Yankees anti-fastball system. Whatever happens to Sonny, his trade looks like it’ll be remembered as a loss on both sides, and it’s hard to imagine anyone walking away from the remnants of the deal happy.