When I first started to write this column, I intended for it to focus on what the Yankees gave up and the risk associated with that. The more in-depth I looked, I realized the Yankees played their cards perfectly in picking up a player who is instantly the second best pitcher on the team.
As of 7/31/17, the New York Yankees are a superior team with Sonny Gray in their rotation rather than Luis Cessa or Caleb Smith or some other combination thereof stepping on the mound every fifth day.
But they better win the World Series within the next couple of years, or heads will roll in the Bronx. That’s the Yankee way. And with no World Series appearances, much less victories, this decade, the Steinbrenners gave the green light to cash in (ha ha, very funny, I know) on the farm system that they had been building over the past few seasons with smart drafting and flipping aging veterans on a hot streak for young prospects. All three of the players going the other way in this one-James Kaprielian, Jorge Mateo, and Dustin Fowler-were drafted and developed by the Yankees, a testament to the quality of the organization all the way on down. This was still a large gamble though-the Yankees weren’t supposed to contend in 2017, and for the majority of the first half, the Bronx Bombers terrorized the American League playing with house money and no pressure. The White Sox trade that cost them Blake Rutherford and this trade for Sonny Gray most assuredly dictates that the circumstances have changed. The pressure to win is on.
At his best, Gray is an All-Star. His 2014 and 2015 seasons in Oakland were unequivocally excellent. At the ages of 24 and 25, he was already one of the best pitchers in the American league. In 2016, injuries robbed him of playing time, and when he was on the hill, it was ugly-his 5.69 ERA was unsightly. in 2017, Gray returned to form-his numbers weren’t quite as good as they were in 2014/2015, but his velocity was consistent, and his FIP and other peripherals suggested that his slight dip in numbers was more due to Oakland’s historically terrible defense rather than any fault of his own. Gray is easily an upgrade over the wildly inconsistent Michael Pineda, who the Yankees no longer need to feel any pressure to resign after his recent Tommy John surgery. CC Sabathia is old and fragile, Masahiro Tanaka is a No. 1 starter with an ERA over 5 and a tender elbow, and Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery has exactly zero postseason starts between them. Gray is a welcome addition as an instant rotation stabilizer with a history of postseason experience who comes relatively cheap contract-wise for the next three years. All told, Gray was the best pitcher available this year.
Still, Gray isn’t a surefire bet to be the Yankee’s ace through 2020. Gray is just 5’10 and one season removed from an injury riddled disaster season. Pitching is inherently a violent motion, and there’s a reason that they look for height with starting pitchers way back down into Little League. Gray’s early career is eerily reminiscent of another Bay Area phenom who came up and immediately lit the world on fire as a young pitcher.
Tim Lincecum was the best pitcher in the world by his second season, and among the worst in major league baseball by his sixth. His body couldn’t take the beating of throwing 95 mph with a 5’10 frame forever-his hips were messed up and his velocity tanked. He couldn’t miss bats and he ended up out of the league by age 33. So smaller pitchers that throw hard come with inherent risk that other players do not.
In addition to Gray’s durability and longevity concerns, there is also the consideration that he pitches in one of the most pitcher friendly ballparks in baseball, the Oakland Coliseum, with it’s deep fences and acres of foul ground. He’s going from a pitcher’s paradise to a hitter’s haven in Yankee Stadium-the adjustment might be troublesome.
So this trade doesn’t come without risk, especially when considering the prospects the Yankees gave up. But the Yankees did their best to mitigate that risk by trading players from positions of depth within the organization
Dustin Fowler looked for all the world to be the centerfielder of the future-after all, Brett Gardner is 33 and Jacoby Ellsbury is, uh, bad. Fowler tore it up in AAA this year and looked to have all the tools to be a solid major league contributor for a decade. Unfortunately, a devastating knee injury before his first at bat robbed him of the chance to ever step up to the plate as a Yankee. If he fully recovers-no guarantee, considering the severity of the injury, he would have profiled nicely between Judge and Frazier.
Fowler is a loss, for sure. However, Aaron Hicks is still just 27 years old and was enjoying a breakout season with the bat when he landed on the disabled list with an oblique injury. He’s due back in August, and even if he doesn’t quite replicate his success at the plate he’s always good for some Gold Glove caliber defense. Waiting in the wings is Estevan Florial, the newly anointed centerfielder of the future after Fowler and Blake Rutherford were both traded. Florial has got all the tools to be an All-Star, and the Yankees are demonstrating tremendous faith in him by trading away both Rutherford and Fowler. Though Frazier and Judge have firmly established themselves on the corners of Yankee stadium, the cupboard of outfielders is bare after Florial, so the pressure is on for him to continue to develop.
Jorge Mateo is a nice young player, and at one point was the Yankee’s best prospect. He’s got tremendous speed and can hit for average, but Cashman’s acquisition of Gleyber Torres and Tyler Wade’s development, along with the success and relative youth of Didi Gregorious and Starlin Castro, has rendered him expendable. He’s a great addition to the A’s farm system, but a loss of little consequence to the Yankees.
James Kaprielian likely would have been getting the starts that Cessa and Smith have picked up following Pineda’s torn UCL had he not suffered the exact same injury himself. Kaprielian could be a really nice pitcher-he looked to be a lock as at least a number three starter in the big leagues, but this is now his second Tommy John surgery. Chance Adams looks like he’s almost ready in Scranton, and Domingo Acevedo was also ahead of him on the RHP prospects list, so losing Kaprielian doesn’t hurt as much as it might have a year ago, especially as they added Clarke Schmidt and Matt Sauer in the first two rounds of the draft this year.
Gray didn’t come cheap, but the Yankees managed to acquire a cost-controlled starter with ace potential without compromising their future-a win win that proves that Brian Cashman is one of the best in the business in both selling and buying at the trade deadline.