Sonny Gray’s brief and disappointing stint with the Yankees has come to an end. Even though we knew this was coming, it’s still not a good feeling now that the moment has arrived. I remember how excited we all were when New York acquired the former Cy Young Award finalist at the 2017 trade deadline. We anxiously awaited the news while the rumored deal was in the works, and reacted enthusiastically when we learned that Gray was finally a Yankee.
I previously wrote about how the Yankees’ handling of Gray left a lot to be desired. I won’t rehash all of those points here, but a quick analysis does reveal that Gray’s departure figures to have a negative impact on the Yankees — at least in the short term.
Impact on the starting rotation
The Yankees rotation now appears set with Luis Severino, Mashiro Tanaka, James Paxton, J.A. Happ, and CC Sabathia. One problem here is that Sabathia has chronic knee problems, doesn’t typically pitch deep into games, and recently had another health scare — this time involving his heart.
I love Sabathia and I’m glad the Yankees re-signed him, but the team would have been stronger with him as the long man in the bullpen and standing by as rotation depth. The Yankees would have been able to do precisely that, had they been willing and able to fix Gray. Unfortunately, they opted not to go that route, and the roster is now weaker as a result.
Chance Adams, Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Luis Cessa now comprise the team’s rotation depth. Based on what we’ve seen so far, the latter three have proven more valuable pitching out of the bullpen, while Adams has yet to demonstrate that he belongs on a major-league roster.
From 2014-17, Gray compiled the 27th-highest WAR (11.0) among the 290 pitchers who started big-league games. That places him among the top ten percent of all starters, right behind Tanaka (12.7 WAR) and J.A. Happ (12.6), but well ahead of Sabathia (6.6). Getting Gray back to his previous level of effectiveness would have given the Yankees pitching staff a big boost for the 2019 campaign.
It’s not just Sabathia’s health that is cause for concern, and I certainly don’t mean to hang it all on him. The last time the Yankees had as many as four pitchers make at least 25 starts apiece was 2013. That track record demonstrates a need for quality rotation depth. The team would have had that with a fixed Gray, but now they don’t.
In a pre-arbitration hearing deal, Gray agreed to a team-friendly $7.5 million salary for the 2019 season with the Yankees. The Reds will now enjoy the benefits of having a talented pitcher take the hill every fifth day — and at such a low cost.
Gray’s departure now lowers the Yankees’ projected 2019 payroll for luxury tax purposes to approximately $213,222,500. According to Cot’s Contracts, the Yankees payroll sat at $220,167,500 before the Gray deal. That figure includes all players under contract, the $4,825,000 that Cot’s estimates Luis Severino will be awarded in arbitration, and the estimated $14.5 million in player benefits that each team is required to pay. After subtracting Gray’s $7.5 million salary, and subsequently adding $555,000 (the major-league minimum) for the player who will replace him on the roster, we arrive at that $213,222,500 figure.
The $213 million payroll estimate puts the Yankees over the $206 million luxury tax line by about $7 million. If that ends up being their final payroll, then they would pay a 20% tax on the overage. In that case, their projected penalty would be about $1.44 million.
The team can add around $12.78 million more to the payroll without seeing an increase in their 2019 tax rate. Once their payroll hits $226 million, they would pay a 32% tax on every dollar spent over that $226 million threshold. If their payroll exceeds $246 million, they would be required to cough up a 62.5% tax on every dollar spent above that $246 million threshold.
The money saved by dumping Gray is far outweighed by the negative impact the trade has on the roster. Barring an unforeseen breakout performance by one of the organization’s depth pieces, this is a deal that the Yankees likely lost in the short term, and it will be years before we know if any of the prospects New York received in the swap pan out.
Meanwhile, I suspect that at some point during the 2019 campaign we are going to gaze upon Gray’s resurgence in Cincinnati with envy, wishing he still wore pinstripes. Right now, this trade feels like a defeat. The Yankees are a weaker team without him.