Spring Training is five weeks and one day away and, rather surprisingly, Sonny Gray is still a Yankee. The Yankees and Brian Cashman have made it crystal clear they want to trade Gray. That was the case even before they filled out the rotation with James Paxton, J.A. Happ, and CC Sabathia over the last few weeks. The Yankees proceeded this winter as if Gray were a non-factor.
“I’m not pounding on Sonny Gray,” said Brian Cashman to Bryan Hoch late last week when asked about his Gray comments. “I’m just answering everybody’s questions in the media, but sometimes people take it as a perceived (slight) that I’m piling on. No, I’ve been fully transparent with Sonny first and foremost, and with members of the media so they can communicate properly to our fan base.”
Two weeks ago I said there are three possible reasons why Sonny has not yet been traded. Either the Yankees haven’t found the right trade, they’ve had a change of heart and want to keep him, or Cashman’s public comments have backfired and no one wants Gray. Last week Cashman doubled down (quadrupled down at this point, really) on wanting to trade Sonny, but added Sabathia’s heart condition has changed the equation.
“Our intention is to move Sonny Gray and relocate him when we get the proper return, in our estimation. It’ll happen this winter, it’ll happen in the spring, or it’ll happen sometime during the season,” Cashman said to Hoch and Ron Blum. “… The CC thing, certainly when it developed it slowed down my conversations with intent because we have to see how this played out first. And so once he has these follow-up appointments, I’ll be in a much better position to either fully engage moving forward the Sonny Gray conversations that we’ve had, or continue to slow walk it while we make sure that CC is taken care of health-wise first and foremost.”
On one hand, wanting to keep Gray as rotation insurance following Sabathia’s angioplasty makes sense. I am okay with carrying Sonny into Spring Training even though he stunk last season. On the other hand, Cashman has made it pretty clear the Yankees don’t believe Sonny can succeed in New York, and if that is truly the case, what kind of rotation insurance is he, really? Has anything changed other than Sabathia’s condition? Two quick thoughts on this.
1. The Yankees kinda sorta have more leverage now. In a very screwed up way Sabathia’s heart condition gives the Yankees increased leverage in trade talks because keeping Gray is more viable. After filling up the rotation, it was clear the Yankees had little use for (or little desire to keep) him, so why would teams come forward with great offers? Now the Yankees keeping Gray is much more believable because they need protection against Sabathia.
2. Waiting too long can be costly. Patience is generally a good thing but there is an inflection point where it becomes counterproductive. Eventually teams turn their attention elsewhere. The Reds, for example, are said to have faded out of the Gray picture because they acquired Tanner Roark and Alex Wood. There are still a lot — a lot — of free agents out there. At some point other Gray suitors (Brewers, Padres, etc.) will turn their attention elsewhere, especially since Sonny only has the one year of team control. He’s not a long-term buy.
The obvious caveat here is that starting pitching is always and forever in demand. There are 150 rotation spots around baseball but there are not 150 better starting pitchers than Gray, and of course injuries open rotation spots all the time. Some team will lose a starter to injury in Spring Training and it could spark interest in Gray. Hey, maybe the Yankees will lose a starter to injury and decide keeping Sonny is their best option going forward. It’s possible!
I think this is most likely what happened: The Yankees came into the offseason fully intending to trade Gray, offers weren’t great at the outset and we’re getting any better, then Sabathia had his angioplasty and allowed Cashman to walk back his comments a bit. Keeping Gray made little sense a few weeks ago and other teams knew it. Now keeping him is justifiable. The Yankees want protection for that fifth starter’s spot.
By all accounts Sabathia is doing well following his heart procedure and he’s expected to be ready for Spring Training. The Yankees will take it easy on him in camp because they always take it easy on him in camp — Sabathia’s made two Grapefruit League road starts since 2014 and he does most of his work in simulated games nowadays — and also because they’ll want to make sure his heart is healthy. There are bigger concerns than baseball here.
While keeping Gray makes more sense now than it did a month ago, I don’t think the Yankees would hesitate to trade him if the right offer comes along. What is that right offer? I’m not sure how the Yankees value Sonny, but I think they’d trade him for that right offer in an instant, and find a sixth starter elsewhere. Will that sixth starter offer the same upside as Gray? Not likely. Will that sixth starter cost upwards of $9M like Gray? Almost certainly not.
The Sonny Gray situation has been unusual from the start because Cashman’s been so public about trading him. I don’t ever remember a general manager announcing his intentions to trade a player like this. And the longer this has dragged on, the weirder it’s become. As poorly as he pitched last year, keeping Gray is not unreasonable, and that was true before Sabathia’s heart issue. Now that Sabathia is more of a question, Cashman can tell other teams he wants to keep Sonny and have it actually be believable. That wasn’t the case earlier this offseason.