Twins Improve, Reds Take a Step Back as Sonny Gray Heads to Minnesota

© Kareem Elgazzar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Cincinnati Reds have been rumored to be interested in trading at least one of their top starters for over a year, with bits of buzz centered around Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. Castillo remains in Cincinnati — at least for the moment — but Saturday, Gray was traded to the Minnesota Twins, one of a few weekend moves the Twins made. Heading to Cincy is Minnesota’s first round pick from last year, right-handed pitcher Chase Petty. A third player, A-ball reliever Francis Peguero also joins the Twins, but landing Gray was the fundamental purpose of this trade.

The reasons for the Twins’ sudden collapse in 2021 are varied, but the most pressing among them is obvious: the rotation. Minnesota’s starting pitchers combined to finish 25th in the league in WAR last season, with a 5.18 ERA and a 4.87 FIP. Even those marks kind of overstate the strength of the rotation given that the team no longer enjoys the services of José Berríos, who they traded to the Blue Jays last summer. Michael Pineda (and his 3.62 ERA over 21 starts) is a free agent, and Kenta Maeda’s September Tommy John surgery means that he won’t be pitching for most, if not all, of the 2022 season. Minnesota’s de facto ace, Dylan Bundy, is a pitcher coming off an ERA north of six; he significant missed time due to shoulder injuries and is taking a pay cut of more than half.

Suffice it to say, Minnesota’s lack of pitching, combined with a rapidly dwindling number of fixes in free agency, left them in a rather unenviable position even in one of baseball’s weakest divisions. Gray isn’t a true ace in the Gerrit Cole/Jacob deGrom vein, but he’s still a well-above-average starting pitcher who gave the Reds three seasons strong enough to largely erase the memory of his stint in New York. His 4.19 ERA and a 3.99 FIP in 2021 were a bit below the previous couple of seasons, but both ZiPS and Statcast’s x-stats think he was unlucky here. zHR is designed to be predictive and saw Gray as allowing three more homers last season than he actually earned from his velocity, angle, and direction data. Subtract those round-trippers out, and Gray’s 2021 looked a lot like his ’19 and ’20, though he did miss time due to injury. A sore back cost him a month of spring training and April games, and he lost another month due to a groin injury. Those maladies combined to limit him to 26 starts, most of the Five-Inning Special variety. Still, I’d take those injuries over a janky elbow or some nasty tear in the shoulder.

Peguero’s not considered a prospect of significance, though he did receive a brief mention on our 2021 Reds top prospect list. The breaking ball remains iffy, but he can punch out batters and has solid control, and he still throws fairly hard, so there’s nothing lost by sticking him at the back of a minor league bullpen and seeing what happens. The Twins have an organizational history of being interested in control-first pitchers who are otherwise unimpressive; pitchers like Joe Mays or Nick Blackburn provided real value for significant stretches in Minnesota. If Peguero is destined to ever make the majors, this is one of the more promising homes for him.

Minnesota’s need for pitching was crystal clear, and as a result, they likely get a larger benefit from adding Gray than most teams in baseball. Here’s what ZiPS projects for the right-hander:

ZiPS Projection – Sonny Gray
2022 10 7 0 3.50 27 27 141.3 116 55 14 55 147 123 3.0
2023 9 6 0 3.58 24 24 125.7 105 50 12 50 128 120 2.6

He likely pushes out some sub-replacement innings, but the main problem here is simply what Sonny Gray is not: a pitcher good enough to single-handedly make the Twins a threat to the White Sox. From fourth-place in the AL Central with 75 wins, ZiPS now projects Minnesota as the second-best team at just under 79 wins, a hair better than the Guardians. The 12.3% projected chance of a playoff appearance surges to just under 21%. And with the rotation still a weak point, even an underwhelming addition like Matthew Boyd would represent an improvement. These probabilities were calculated before the second trade with the New York Yankees. ZiPS thinks that, from a roster strength standpoint, that one is more or less a wash, more significant for the financial gains than direct wins.

But if Gray improves things in Minnesota, this trade falls well into the “depressing” column for Cincinnati. The offense has been up-and-down in recent seasons, but the Reds had one of the strongest rotations in the majors for a few years. Trevor Bauer’s gone (though that doesn’t look particularly unfortunate now), and so are Gray, Anthony DeSclafani, and Wade Miley. Both Castillo and Tyler Mahle are free agents after the 2023 season. While they could theoretically re-sign both pitchers, I’m not particularly bullish given that Miley was let go purely for financial reasons and Gray’s contract was very reasonable, with only $10 million guaranteed ($1 million more after the trade) and a $12 million team option. Note that team owner Robert Castellini was one of the four owners who didn’t want the CBT threshold to be increased at all in the recent CBA negotiations.

Unlike with the Miley dump, the Reds did at least get something in return for Gray. Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin ranked Petty as Minnesota’s No. 14 prospect. There’s always something tantalizing about a teenager who hits 100 mph on the radar gun, but there are reasons for his relatively low position on our list:

We remain skeptical about Petty’s long-term chances to start due to the nature of his delivery and relative lack of physical projection. While he is very well-built and strong, the cement on his frame is closer to being dry than it is for most teenage prospects. It’s not like we’re hoping for more velocity here anyway — that piece of the puzzle is already in place — Petty just needs to prove he can sustain it as a starter throughout a whole pro season. He also needs to develop a changeup, which is probably more likely than him developing a second breaking ball, as it might be hard for him to get on top of a curveball from his current slot.

Put as directly as possible, Petty is fascinating, but he’s also a high school pitcher who has all of two professional games in the Florida Complex League. There are a lot of things that can happen to an interesting pitching prospect between rookie ball and the majors, and a lot of those things are bad. It’s nice to imagine him one day joining Hunter Greene in the big leagues, resulting in a rotation that has two pitchers who throw in the century range. But if both pitchers work out, Greene may very well be traded by the time Petty debuts at Great American.

There are reasons to like Petty, but the trade is disappointing because the Reds had a real chance to win right now, not just at some undefined point in the late 2020s when the team might have Petty. Since the COVID-shortened season, the Reds have shown little willingness to push to win and take control of a division with no first-tier teams. Last season’s 83-79 record was respectable, but Gray, Miley, and Nick Castellanos are all gone. Those three players alone combined for nearly 10 WAR in 2021, and there have been no comparable acquisitions to compensate. With this move, the ZiPS projection for Cincinnati’s divisional probability drops from 8.5% to 5.5%, while their playoff probability slumps from 25.2% to 16.1%.

This trade moved one team towards Wild Card contention and one team away from it. I assume if you’ve read this far, you know which team is which.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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8 months ago

This move I love for Minnesota. Gray is not great, but, he’s decent & may perform better outside of the Great American bandbox. He should be a #3 starter, but, vast improvement for The Twins.

Petty is what he is- Hard thrower who is likely years away & a lottery ticket.

Heck, I wouldn’t be shocked that IF Gray pitched well while The Twins still scuffle that Minnesota couldn’t get a better return at the trade deadline than what they just gave up.

Mr. Redlegsmember
8 months ago
Reply to  PC1970

The Reds would have absolutely done better if they traded him at the deadline. Alas, that would mean paying him $5M for the first half of the season which apparently is backbreacking for the Castellinis…