Let’s Talk About That Weird Sonny Gray Trade Rumor

After the worst year of his career, including spending time on the DL with shoulder issues, Sonny Gray looks healthy again, posting his best fielding-independent numbers since his rookie year. And with the A’s looking like sellers, Gray is expected to get moved in the next month or so. And according to Susan Slusser, it might be sooner than that, with the Astros reportedly the most aggressive buyer at the moment.

Sonny Gray, who will start Tuesday against the Astros, probably will be dealt in the next six weeks and one of the more realistic landing spots for the A’s ace is….Houston.

Industry sources have mentioned the Astros in connection with Gray for weeks, there is zero doubting Houston’s interest, and the A’s front office has had no qualms dealing within the division. Especially with Houston, a frequent trade partner, including two years ago at the deadline when Oakland sent Scott Kazmir to the Astros. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow just so happens to be in town for this series.

All that makes sense. The Astros have been looking for a rotation upgrade, especially a controllable guy that they can use to extend their window for the next several years. The Astros also have plenty of pieces to spare, so they’re an attractive trade partner for Oakland, especially since they don’t care about the in-division aspect of things. So that all makes sense.

But then, there’s the last line of Slusser’s piece.

However, there are numerous other clubs with interest, including one National League team that even has toyed with the idea of using Gray as a closer.

Wait, what?

Sonny Gray appeared in relief in the first two outings of his career, back in July of 2013, pitching the sixth and seventh inning in both of those outings. When he re-joined the team in August, he was inserted into the rotation, and has been a starter ever since. So why would a team trade for a high-quality starter who has never pitched high-leverage relief innings and convert him to a new role in the middle of a pennant race? That would be weird.

But, there are some potential scenarios where it could maybe sort of make some sense, kinda.

1. You don’t like any of the closers on the market. David Robertson is the most available closer out there, and is having a strong bounce back year after last year’s relative struggles, but he’s a 32-year-old who throws a lot of breaking balls and has developed a little bit of a home run problem in recent years, plus is due about $20 million through the end of the 2018 season. Jim Johnson is 34 and was terrible the last time the Braves traded him to a contender. If you’re not a fan of either of those two options, you may be inclined to explore non-traditional ways of finding a closer.

2. You think the price on starters and relievers has gotten too similar. Last year, the Cubs paid through the nose to rent Aroldis Chapman for the second half of the year, while the Indians also gave up a significant package to get Andrew Miller. If the teams selling relievers are pegging their prices to those two deals, perhaps a contender could see more value in acquiring a starter instead, using them in relief for the rest of this season and then having a controllable starter for years beyond 2017.

3. You want a multi-inning closer, not a one-inning guy, and think Gray could easily adopt to pitching the last few innings of tight games. If you’re confident in your postseason rotation, but want an Andrew Miller type reliever for October, perhaps Gray is a better bet to fill that role in the postseason than any of the available relievers.

Now, I don’t know that those scenarios actually exist in MLB right now, but we’re not privy to the asking prices for Robertson/Johnson, or even the non-closers like Brad Hand or Justin Wilson. It’s possible that a team exploring the reliever market in June could have gotten the impression that scenario #2 could be true, and is just kicking the tires on Gray to make sure they have their bases covered in case they want to zig when the market is zagging.

Which which NL team would really do this? In reality, there are only five clear buyers in the NL: the Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals, Rockies, and Diamondbacks. It wouldn’t make sense for one of the bubble teams like St. Louis or New York to try this, and if the Brewers were going to acquire Sonny Gray, it would be to displace one of their starters, not Corey Knebel. So it would have to be one of the five teams listed above.

We can probably rule out the Cubs. With Wade Davis, they’re pretty set in the ninth inning, and they have a clear need for another starting pitcher, so there is no reason for them to trade for Gray and then use him to fortify the bullpen instead of the rotation.

We can probably rule out the Rockies. Greg Holland is one of the main reasons they’ve been winning this year, and it’s hard to imagine that they’d acquire Gray to create a bullpen controversy when their bullpen has already been excellent.

For similar reasons, you’d think we could rule out the Dodgers, who have Kenley Jansen shutting the door in the ninth inning. But the Dodgers are also the team who does enough unusual things to try and get an edge that I wouldn’t entirely rule them out, and they could see Gray as a way to stabilize the relief corps in front of Jansen. That wouldn’t match up with Slusser reporting that the team wanted to use him as their closer, but maybe in this instance, closer was just short-hand for high leverage reliever? I don’t know. This feels like a stretch.

That leaves the Nationals and Diamondbacks. The Nationals are the easy guess, since they have the most glaring need for a closer in baseball, but Dusty Baker has made it pretty clear that he wants an established ninth-inning guy, a “proven closer”. While the Nationals front office might be inclined to try something unusual with Gray in the ninth inning, I don’t know that Baker would be all that on board with converting a starter to reliever mid-season and handing him the ninth inning for the first time in his life, and he almost certainly wouldn’t use Gray in the multi-inning role. I think the Nationals are more likely to acquire a traditional reliever and use him like a traditional reliever.

By process of elimination, that would leave the Diamondbacks. It’s pretty rational to not trust Fernando Rodney, despite the fact that he already has 20 saves. While Archie Bradley has been excellent in relief work this year, they might prefer to keep his multi-inning flexibility for earlier in the game. With Zack Godley stabilizing the back of the rotation, they could theoretically believe that Gray would help them more in October as a multi-inning closer than as a starter who might only throw once in a five game series.

So if anyone is kicking this idea around, I’m betting it’s Arizona. But in the end, I still think the idea is too weird to actually come to fruition. If the Astros are serious about acquiring Gray to upgrade their rotation, I have a hard time seeing a team like the Diamondbacks outbidding them to experiment with Gray in relief. While the value gap between starters and relievers is shrinking, I don’t think we’re yet at the point where it would make sense for a team to pay the deadline premium for a quality starter, and then ask him to do something he’s never really done before in his career in the midst of a playoff push.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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John W.member
5 years ago

I bet it’s the Cubs- the rest of their bullpen is very shaky and they only have Davis for this year.

5 years ago
Reply to  John W.

But the rest of their bullpen isn’t all that shaky. Uehara and Edwards have been unhittable, and Strop, Duensing, and Montgomery have all been solid. Even with the horrible HR/FB rates from Rondon and Grimm, which have to regress at some point, the Cubs have still had one of the top 5 bullpens in the NL.

5 years ago
Reply to  gnomez

Strop pitching in the clutch…..ewwww. He reminds me of Farnsworth. Nasty stuff but awful when it counts. Also Monty is now the rotation, and hopefully stay there even after Hendricks returns from the DL.

5 years ago
Reply to  John W.

Russell and Billy McKinney to the A’s, Gray and another pitcher coming back.

5 years ago
Reply to  phil

Billy McKinney is Yankees property. Tough for the Cubs to make that trade.

5 years ago
Reply to  phil

Nice of the Yankees to give us McKinney back for nothing. Now that Gleyber is out for the year maybe Cashman can return him to us too.

5 years ago
Reply to  phil

lol. good one, even if McKinney is gone.

CC AFCmember
5 years ago
Reply to  John W.

The cubs jumped to mind for me, too. Not that I agree with it, but I could see the needs lining up just enough for it to be plausible.

Maddon is clearly willing to push his top bullpen guys in the playoffs, so the idea of acquiring a multi-inning guy fits there. He has also shown he might bury certain relievers in his bullpen in the playoffs if he loses trust – maybe he does not want to use Rondon or Strop in the playoffs like last year and so they’re thinking they need to add some guys?

Maddon and the front office there are pretty progressive about trying new things.

And Lackey and Arrieta are free agents so there would be a natural rotation fit after this season.

I’d still just use the freakin guy in the rotation, but that seems to line up a little.

5 years ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Agreed. If the Cubs are getting Gray, they are sticking him in the rotation which is the team’s biggest need.

5 years ago
Reply to  John W.

Montgomery, Uehara, and Edwards are outstanding. By “rest of their bullpen”, do you mean 2 guys?