Sonny Gray has become one of the more forgotten players on the New York Yankees’ roster, and his role in their potential success this season has flown under-the-radar too. In fact, the Yankees need Gray to return to being one of the more dominant righties in MLB if they aspire to be the team to beat in the American League.
At last year’s MLB trading deadline, general manager Brian Cashman swung a deal with the Oakland Athletics to acquire Gray. Beforehand, Gray was regarded as one of the better righties in MLB. Finishing with an ERA under 3.10 and pitching 200-plus innings twice from 2013-15, he was a reliable top-of-the-rotation arm.
Unfortunately for Gray, injuries stunting his production after the 2015 season. Suffering a strained right trapezius and strained right forearm, the righty was only able to take the hill 22 times in 2016. In those outings, he recorded an abysmal 5.69 ERA and 1.50 WHIP (both career-worsts). Gray put runners on base with ease, was hit hard and a liability. The ensuing year (2017), he missed the first month of the regular season with a strained right shoulder and was then traded to New York after he showed signs of improvement.
Despite his shaky start to the 2017 season, Gray was able to finish his 16 starts in Oakland with a 3.43 ERA. He didn’t put runners on base as much as he did the year prior, was able to pitch deeper into games and showed flashes of the ace of old, which led the Yankees to pull the trigger on a trade for the righty. However, while he wasn’t terrible, Gray did not live up to the hype in the Bronx.
Finishing with a 3.72 ERA in 11 starts, while putting himself on track to give up a career-high in home runs while lallygagging through at-bats, he was not a dominant force at the top of then-manager Joe Girardi‘s rotation. And Girardi’s lack of confidence in Gray was put on full display in the postseason.
The Yankees gave Gray the starting nod in their Game 1 ALDS matchup with the Cleveland Indians and he struggled. Surrendering four walks, three hits and runs, while throwing 73 pitches in 3.1 innings, Girardi had to pull the plug on Gray early. He then opted to go back to C.C. Sabathia instead of Gray in Game 5 even though the lefty already started Game 2. The decision ultimately helped advance the Yankees to the ALCS, where Gray only made one appearance.
Outside of his Game 4 outing, Gray never made an appearance in their ALCS series with the Houston Astros whether it be starting or out of the bullpen; he was essentially given a week and a half off. The pitcher Cashman acquired to pitch in the big game didn’t have the confidence of his manager when it mattered most.
Now in hindsight, was Gray a complete bust for the Yankees last season? No, he pitched well, but certainly not at an All-Star level. If the Yankees want to be the most complete and dangerous team in the American League next season, they need Gray to pitch at that level.
Gray isn’t a strikeout pitcher who’s going to overpower hitters with his fastball. He’s a groundball pitcher who thrives on catching hitters off-guard with outside pitches. But whenever he goes up against a home run savvy lineup, such as the Indians, he struggles and second-guesses his pitches.
The Yankees acquired Gray to be their number one or two starter behind Luis Severino. A big part of their motive in making the trade was Masahiro Tanaka‘s struggles. In May, Tanaka nearly gave up as many runs as innings pitched (he surrendered 29 earned runs in 31 innings pitched in May) and struggled with his command all season long. Finishing 2017 with a career-worst 4.74 ERA, he endured, by far, the worst season of his four-year career. In fact, had Tanaka never struggled so much, management likely never trades for Gray.
So maybe the veteran’s struggles were a blessing in disguise for the Yankees? If Tanaka can return to being a Cy Young caliber righty and Gray pitches up to expectations while Severino continues to blossom into a bonafide ace, the Yankees will have one of the best pitching trios in MLB.
Based on the stellar pitching trios around the American League such as the Indians (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer), Astros (Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole) and Boston Red Sox (Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, Drew Pomeranz), it’s crucial that the Yankees get valiant efforts from their premier arms this season.
Gray was acquired to pitch in the big game and make the Yankees’ pitching staff a force to be reckoned with. They have one of the games’ most feared lineups after adding Giancarlo Stanton and Brandon Drury and also one of MLB’s best bullpens. Their rotation can be elite too, but it’s heavily reliant on Gray returning to being the guy the Yankees acquired him to be.