Xander Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox is not a big power hitter -- he's still looking for his first home run this season -- but his upside is that he reliably makes contact and puts the ball in play. This season, he’s hitting .331 with just 27 strikeouts. Ichiro Suzuki is one of the best contact hitters of his era, a player who has never struck out more than 86 times in any of his 17 seasons in the majors.
That context is crucial in understanding how good Sonny Gray is right now, because as coaches and managers will often say, it’s the opposing hitters who will inform a pitcher about how well he’s throwing. Based on Gray's performance in his past two outings -- with some clues provided by Bogaerts, Ichiro and others -- the Oakland right-hander appears to be back to his All-Star form, which could be a seismic shift in the upcoming trade market for contenders like the Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees and Houston Astros.
Rival evaluators have wondered about Gray’s decline in performance since the start of the 2016 season, about the quality of his stuff. Gray’s rate of swings-and-misses dropped to 8.0 percent last year, the lowest of his career, and he was limited to just 22 starts. He strained a lat muscle this spring and opened the season on the disabled list, and the response from a lot of corners of the industry was: Here we go again.
On the Baseball Tonight podcast last week, Cubs GM Jed Hoyer spoke generally about the starting pitcher trade market, and how quickly it can be affected by a couple of starts in July.
Or a couple of starts in May, for that matter.
Gray was activated from the disabled list on May 2 and had a couple of OK starts. On May 18, Gray threw against the Red Sox, who have one of baseball’s better offenses. Using a nasty, sharply veering slider to complement his fastball, Gray generated 16 missed swings among 103 pitches -- including four in two at-bats against Bogaerts. Gray struck out the Red Sox shortstop on three pitches in the first inning, and again struck him out on three pitches in the fifth inning.
Ichiro was next, and his at-bat lasted three pitches:
Swing and miss.
Swing and miss.
Swing and miss.
Throwing a wicked slider again -- you can see it here -- Gray needed just 88 pitches to strike out 11 in seven innings, allowing one run. According to FanGraphs, his average fastball velocity was almost 94 mph, and he threw his slider almost a third of his pitches, a dramatic increase over his first starts off the disabled list.
The starting pitching market is likely to be saturated with alternatives this summer, from the likes of the Kansas City Royals' Jason Vargas to the Toronto Blue Jays' Marco Estrada. But the Cubs, Yankees and Astros -- and perhaps others -- might have particular interest in acquiring a starter they can control beyond 2017, rather than a rental. Jose Quintana, who is locked up for as many as three more years through club options in his contract, fits this description, as does Gerrit Cole, although Cole probably is not really a legit option for the Cubs, who would have to overpay to make a deal with the division rival Pittsburgh Pirates. The Tampa Bay Rays will listen on Chris Archer, who is signed through 2019 and has club options for 2020 and 2021.
The 27-year-old Gray could become the No. 1 target in the trade market in the weeks ahead, based on some factors:
1. He’s throwing well right now.
2. His contract situation is uncomplicated: He’s got three-plus years of service time, and he’ll be eligible for arbitration the next two winters, leading up to free agency eligibility in the fall of 2019.
3. Billy Beane, Oakland’s vice president of baseball operations, is known among his peers for his willingness to discuss any player at any time, regardless of the baseball calendar. For example, in 2014, he executed a big deal on July 5, swapping top shortstop prospect Addison Russell to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, in an effort to make a win-now deal. Other teams also like to deal with Beane, finding him to be imaginative and open-minded.
4. Oakland might be especially motivated to move Gray sooner rather than later, given his recent injury history. He is a hot stock right now, with value much higher than a month ago.
5. The potential buyers are motivated. The Cubs need a starting pitcher not only to help them this year, but also to help them after Jake Arrieta and John Lackey possibly depart as free agents this fall. The Yankees are better than expected. So with Masahiro Tanaka struggling and CC Sabathia somewhat inconsistent, the Yankees have a clear rotation need -- and the depth of prospects (like outfielder Clint Frazier) to make a deal for a big-time starter. The Astros have a team clearly capable of winning the World Series. They tried to trade for Quintana last winter, but found the asking price to be too high. Houston is fortunate that Beane is among the few executives who would be willing to consider swapping a star player to division rival.