The A’s were never going to hold. There was simply too much for them to lose. Sure, the rumors flew around, but they never made sense, as the A’s aren’t stupid. The A’s were never going to hold, and the Yankees were always the obvious match. They stood to gain the most in the short-term, and they stood to gain the most in the long-term. An agreement felt virtually inevitable, and while there were tugs on either side, there’s nothing like a deadline to push negotiators toward a decision. As time ran out, the A’s and the Yankees finally came together, as one would’ve figured they would.
- Sonny Gray
- $1.5 million in international bonus money
The Yankees get to sell it as a move for a good starting pitcher in which they didn’t have to give up their absolute top-tier prospects. The A’s get to sell it as a move for three talented young players, each of whom could make a big-league splash. Neither interpretation would be incorrect — that’s how the spin goes when you’re dealing with a system as deep as New York’s. The A’s did well to get what they did, and there’s something to dream on with all of these players, yet the bigger takeaway for now is that the Yankees have taken another step forward. Their transition period is complete, and they’re now ready to try for a title.
It’s not that Gray moves the needle that much by himself. He’s a No. 2 starting pitcher, not Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw. Gray is a big part of this, but recall that the Yankees also recently added guys like Jaime Garcia, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Todd Frazier. They’ve gotten better and better with every move, and what they are now is both strong and deep. Here’s one look at how things have gone: Here are every team’s estimated winning percentages according to BaseRuns, with the Yankees highlighted.
BaseRuns thinks the Yankees have been great! At the same time, BaseRuns is backward-looking. We want to be forward-looking, and the Yankees’ roster has undergone changes, anyhow. Here is updated rest-of-season projected WAR. It’s not the same thing as a projected winning percentage, but the two are very tightly linked.
If you want, you can see a divide there between teams seven and eight. That divide could define the upper tier, and if you interpret the landscape that way, then the Yankees look strong, almost as strong as any other team in the league. Perhaps they’re not quite as good as the Indians, I don’t know, but they’ve both played well and gotten better. Coming into the year, the Yankees were probably, internally, more focused on 2018. This wasn’t supposed to happen as fast as it has. But the Yankees played well, and the front office adjusted, making moves to improve a competitive roster. This Gray trade is the biggest splash, and the Yankees were the clear, optimal fit.
Gray is a good starting pitcher today, and he should be a good starting pitcher under team control for another two full seasons. Think first about this in the short-term. Which teams stand to gain the most from significant midseason upgrades? Teams right on the bubble. Teams like, say, these Yankees, who are fighting for either the division or the wild card. Gray could make the biggest difference for the Yankees’ odds, given their positioning, and given the state of their starting five. There are question marks in there. There are possible innings caps in there. Gray changes the look of the staff.
Think now about this in the longer-term. I certainly don’t want to pretend like we already know the future of baseball, but look around the various divisions. The Dodgers don’t seem like they face an imminent threat. Nor do the Cubs, Brewers first half aside. Maybe, maybe, the Nationals should be worried about the 2018 Mets, but the Nationals will still be the favorites. No one in the AL West is close to the Astros. No one in the AL Central ought to be close to the Indians. Those other divisions appear to have easy favorites. The AL East is different. The AL East is always deep, and at the very least, the Yankees will be fighting against the Red Sox. So, there’s stiffer competition, further incentivizing the Yankees to make this kind of acquisition. This is a difference-maker beyond the next few months.
Luis Severino seems to be great. Jordan Montgomery’s been a pleasant surprise. The Yankees have already lost Michael Pineda, and after the year, they could lose both CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka. Jaime Garcia, too. This is kind of the Yankees’ equivalent of the Cubs’ move for Jose Quintana. We’re not necessarily dealing with a true ace, but teams don’t want to go into the winter needing a top starter. Too many suitors; prices get outrageous. The Yankees have accomplished a lot by getting one guy.
Gray has had an ace-y reputation before. That’s what happens when you pitch to a sub-3 ERA. He was certainly the ace in Oakland, but injuries spoiled his 2016. Gray now is back to form, albeit in a different way. His signature breaking ball is less of a weapon, but he has his best strikeout rate since he was a rookie. Gray has a 75 FIP-, and an xFIP- to match. To put it in different, if similar terms — Gray has about the same expected wOBA allowed this season as Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. He ranks in the 80th percentile among starters with a reasonable amount of playing time. I suppose you could classify Gray as a bottom-half No. 1. Better to think of him as quite a good No. 2. He comes out looking a good deal worse than Severino does.
Gray was hurt last season, and he was hurt at the beginning of this season. It was going to be too much of a risk for the A’s to hold onto him. The reality is that, when you’re a non-competitive team, all pitchers should be regarded as short-term assets, even if they’re under longer-term control. The Yankees will hope that Gray’s arm stays attached; the A’s no longer have to worry about that. They can turn their attention to Fowler, Kaprielian, and Mateo. These are three significant prospects, who should help to usher forward Oakland’s rebuilding process.
When Eric looked at the Yankees’ system in March, he ranked Kaprielian fourth, Mateo sixth, and Fowler seventh. Circumstances have changed. Nevertheless, that’s a testament to the talent included in the haul. Mateo’s 22. Fowler’s 22. Kaprielian is the old guy, at 23. Each could become an impact regular.
The obvious asterisk here has to do with the injuries. Scouts love Kaprielian. He’s out, after having had Tommy John surgery. Scouts also love Fowler. He’s out, after having had season-ending knee surgery. Mateo is the only healthy one, and health for the others shouldn’t be taken for granted. These are no longer undamaged kids. Rehab from Tommy John is not a formality, and neither is rehab from a knee operation. Kaprielian is more of a risk than ever before. Fowler, too. Even if you think they’ll be fine down the road, one can’t know that. The human body isn’t better for breaking.
As Gray rumors circled, over the previous days, it seemed the A’s were in the market for a high-ceiling center fielder. Fowler might come away being that center fielder. He’s an aggressive-swinging lefty who has enough of a zone idea to come up short of being a hacker. Despite an unimpressive Triple-A walk rate, he worked a high number of counts to his advantage. He’s also steadily increased his rate of fly balls over time, allowing his power to more fully blossom. Fowler appeared big-league ready when he suffered his horrible knee injury in his debut. He should help the A’s as soon as next season, provided he’s regained his mobility. He might be a tweener, but the A’s will have space.
Mateo, in a way, might alternatively come away being that center fielder. Although he’s played far more shortstop, this year he’s started to get semi-regular center-field reps, and that could be a good application of his 80-level speed. Maybe the A’s will permanently return Mateo to the infield — I’m not sure — but his speed is a legitimate tool, and he’s made a terrific impression in Double-A. Mateo might not develop enough power to go with his somewhat elevated strikeout rate, but since arriving in Double-A, he’s hit a lower rate of grounders than ever, so he might be making an adjustment. Mateo won’t come as quickly as Fowler will, but he’s likely to have a career.
Kaprielian was a mid-first-round pick in 2015. He’s a 6-foot-4 righty who flashed a big fastball before needing surgery. Eric was also taken by the rest of his four-pitch repertoire, but because of the injury, Kaprielian has a limited statistical record as a professional. He had Tommy John surgery in April, so he’s likely to be rehabbing through next spring, but this past spring, there was talk Kaprielian could debut in 2017, so he’s regarded as a fast mover. If he gets himself healthy and back to 100%, he won’t be far from the majors. It’s just, you know how people talk about pitching prospects who aren’t hurt. Kaprielian’s already been hurt. There’s nothing here to be taken for granted.
It’s an easy move for the Yankees to justify. They’re not losing anything they were going to need, and Gray fits their roster better than any other available player could have. It’s just another move the Yankees made to try to find some separation between themselves and the Red Sox. From the A’s perspective, they’re going to worry about Fowler and Kaprielian until they come back, but that has to be better than worrying about Gray’s arm every time he throws 100 pitches. Fowler and Kaprielian, at least, have years, and very high ceilings. There’s less pressure there. And these are players who could arrive in 2018. Mateo, perhaps, as well. The A’s didn’t sell Gray for guys who might not show up until 2021. There could be a quicker return on investment, as the A’s still don’t want to tear it all completely to the ground.
Like most trades these days, this makes good sense for both sides. Like few trades these days, this is a blockbuster. The Yankees are ready to try for a World Series. The A’s are ready to try to not suck. Not this year, I mean. This year is toast. But brighter days should lie ahead. It’s good to just finally have this move done.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.