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The Yankees’ handling of Sonny Gray indicates deeper organizational problems

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The ongoing saga hasn’t answered any key questions; it’s only added to the confusion.

Sonny Gray pitches for the New York Yankees pitches in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles during game two of a doubleheader at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 25, 2018 during Players Weekend. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Three days after his Yankees were eliminated by the rival Red Sox in the Division Series, General Manager Brian Cashman made a pronouncement during his season-ending press conference. When asked about once-coveted starting pitcher Sonny Gray, Cashman confessed that the right-hander hadn’t worked out, and that he would seek to trade him during the offseason. On Friday, with CC Sabathia having suffered a recent health scare, Cashman appeared to backpedal.

”Our intention is to move Sonny Gray and relocate him when we get the proper return, in our estimation,” Cashman said on January 4th. “It’ll happen this winter, it’ll happen in the spring or it’ll happen sometime during the season. The CC circumstance certainly has given us pause, because we want to make sure that we’re covered and protected.”

During the October 12th presser, Cashman also praised Gray, saying he’s “not a bad makeup guy,” while adding that the team which acquires him is going to “get the player that we wanted.” The Yankees GM pointed to the times that “he obviously showed what he was capable of” and stated that Gray is “very well-liked in that clubhouse.”

Strangely, Cashman added that the team which acquires Gray will “be in a better position to unlock what he’s really truly capable of and what we saw in Oakland, where he was a competent starter.”

So, let me see if I have this timeline straight. First, the Yankees acquired Gray from Oakland for a trio of prospects at the 2017 non-waiver trade deadline. Gray was the big pitcher the Yankees coveted at the time, Cashman set his eyes on the target, and he did what was required to put Gray in pinstripes.

Then, after arriving in the Bronx, Gray suddenly began pitching in a way that was not “competent” and below what he was “truly capable of” (Cashman’s words), but the Yankees couldn’t figure out why or how to fix it, so they decided to trade him. Apparently, a driving force was the belief that another team would be better equipped to harness Gray’s full potential. What exactly does that say about the Yankees’ competency?

There’s more. After Sabathia’s health scare, plans to unload Gray have been scuttled, at least for the time being. Does this mean that the Yankees now feel up for the task of fixing Gray? Isn’t a MLB franchise’s inability to properly coach and manage a major-league player the central issue here?

There’s still more. Cashman also stated that if Gray is with the Yankees in March, then manager Aaron Boone, pitching coach Larry Rothschild, and bullpen coach Mike Harkey will “do everything” in their power “to get the most out of his ability.”

Isn’t that the same group that failed to successfully work with Gray throughout the 2018 season? Could it be time to bring someone new into the picture? How about David Cone, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Mel Stottlemyre, Severino whisperer Pedro Martinez, or spring training instructor Ron Guidry? Most of those guys made well-publicized in-career adjustments. Perhaps they can help Gray? And why on earth is the club waiting until March to address this?

With the Yankees’ historic belt-tightening in full swing, it makes sense to want to return Gray to the Cy Young candidate he was years ago, rather than pawning him off on some other team so they can cash in. MLB Trade Rumors predicts that Gray will earn around $9.1 million in salary arbitration this year. That would be a bargain for a quality starter considering what free agents like Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi garnered this winter.

Of the 290 pitchers who started big-league games from 2014-2017, Gray compiled the 27th-highest WAR (11.0). That places him among the top ten percent of all starters, right behind teammates Masahiro Tanaka (12.7 WAR) and J.A. Happ (12.6), but well ahead of Sabathia (6.6). Gray reached the pinnacle of his career (so far) in 2015 when he was an All-Star and finished third in the Cy Young Award balloting. He just turned 29 years old, so Gray could still have good years ahead.

Even getting Gray back to his previous level of effectiveness could give the Yankees pitching staff a big – and unexpected – boost for the 2019 campaign. With Sabathia’s health an ongoing concern, and current rotation depth consisting of Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga, Luis Cessa, and Chance Adams, it only makes sense that the front office would do everything possible to make a Gray resurgence likely. So why doesn’t it seem like they are doing that?

Unfortunately, it may fall on Gray to not only summon the strength to ignore the way he’s being treated by the organization, but to also find a pitching guru who can provide proper guidance. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Gray does just that, and ends up being a difference-maker for the Yankees in 2019?