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What should the Yankees expect for Sonny Gray?

The Yankees’ asking price for the right-hander has been high. What would be an actually reasonable return for Gray?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more interesting subplots of the offseason thus far has been Brian Cashman’s crusade to trade Sonny Gray. The Yankees GM has been almost shockingly candid in how he’s described his efforts to trade the embattled right-hander, speaking openly about the team’s desire to move Gray, the number of teams involved, and even Gray’s ability to pitch in New York.

With how blunt Cashman has been about moving Gray, it seemed like a Gray trade would be one of the winter’s first orders of business. Instead, the new year is approaching and Gray is still on the team, with other clubs reportedly having found the Yankees’ asking price too high. At this point, Gray has been in limbo so long that we’ve even speculated about the Yankees reversing course and keeping him.

It’s still probable Gray gets dealt, as Cashman’s public comments about him likely burned the bridge entirely and left very little chance Gray ever pitches for New York again. With a Gray trade still on the table, now’s a good time to actually consider what the Yankees should expect to receive in return for their erstwhile starter.

Gray’s actual trade value is a bit of an open question. Cashman apparently shot for the moon in discussions with the Reds, asking for elite prospects like outfielder Taylor Trammell and infielder Nick Senzel. Such an ask is obviously unreasonable, with Gray coming off a down year and one season away from free agency.

Still, what exactly is Gray’s value after such a poor campaign? Gray is 29 years old and 3rd-year arbitration eligible, and MLB Trade Rumors predicts he will earn $9.1 million next season. Can the Yankees really expect a high level return for one year of Gray, and what kind of return should they be targeting?

If the Yankees are to get any value for Gray, it would have to come with the understanding that Gray will pitch much better in 2019. In 2017, Gray maintained a 122 ERA+ and nearly struck out a batter per inning. Even after last season’s disaster, his career ERA is still 10 percent better than league average. The reasonable expectation is for Gray to bounce back somewhat.

Most encouraging is the fact that Gray’s stuff is still there. Per Statcast, Gray’s average four-seam fastball velocity only dropped 0.2 mph from 2017 to 2018, while his sinker actually increased in speed by 1.0 mph. His slider and curve generated nearly identical whiff rates year-over-year, and he held opposing hitters to sub-.275 wOBA’s with each breaking pitch. The raw tools for an effective starting pitcher are still all present here.

Consequently, early projections do forecast an improved season for Gray. Steamer currently pegs him for a 3.75 ERA and 3.77 FIP. He has been fairly durable throughout his career, averaging nearly 170 innings across the past five seasons. If Gray can make 25+ starts with that projected level of effectiveness, he profiles as a good mid-rotation starter.

What can one year of a quality mid-rotation arm fetch on the trade market? It’s hard to use recent precedent as a guide, as there haven’t been many trades over the past few years which featured a team selling one year of a solid starting pitcher. Instead, it might be better to look at what one year of a two-to-three win player in general costs on the market.

One solid example is the Andrew McCutchen trade from a year ago. The Pirates sent McCutchen, one year from free agency, to the Giants for pitcher Kyle Crick and outfielder Bryan Reynolds. Crick at the time profiled as a serviceable, low-ceiling 25-year-old arm, while Reynolds was a 23-year-old outfielder with mostly average tools. Reynolds most recently ranked as Pittsburgh’s ninth prospect on FanGraphs’ list, while Crick gave the Pirates 60 solid relief innings in 2018.

We can find more examples in past years. Prior to 2017, the Royals traded one year of Jarrod Dyson, coming off a three-win season per Baseball Reference, for four years of pitcher Nate Karns. Also prior to 2017, the Cubs traded four years of Jorge Soler for one year of All-Star reliever Wade Davis. These are obviously imprecise comps for a talented but inconsistent pitcher like Gray, but they serve to show how the league values one season of a roughly three-win player.

Based on what the trade market has yielded for sub-elite players a year from free agency, the Yankees can probably expect some sort of middling return for Gray. Perhaps they’ll look for something like what the Pirates got for McCutchen, in the form of low-ceiling young players with lots of team control. Maybe the Yankees will err towards players like Karns or Soler, who were already major-leaguers with clear flaws when they were traded.

If the Yankees do trade Gray, a package of prospects might actually make more sense. While it’s odd for a contending team to trade for prospects, it seems highly unlikely Gray could fetch a major-leaguer good enough to help the Yankees. The Yankees lack holes, and the kinds of big-leaguers Gray could bring back would have a hard time making an impact on the Yankees’ 25-man roster.

In all, the Yankees’ should almost certainly back down from their high asking price, and settle on a more reasonable return of notable but not top prospects. Gray should have actual value, as he projects as a solid bounceback candidate that could help any number of teams with rotation problems. It’s just unlikely the Yankees could get either a big prospect haul or a major-leaguer that could help them next year in return.