Atlanta Braves Trade Candidate: Sonny Gray
Updated: Jan 11, 2019
The calendar has turned to 2019, but needs remain for Alex Anthopoulos to address. As most fans will tell you, it has been all quiet on virtually every front for the Atlanta Braves for some time now.
After reeling in a pair of veteran sluggers in Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann to open the winter, the club has not made another significant free-agent signing or pulled off a major trade.
Thus, the needs remain the same: corner outfielder, top starter and bullpen help.
All of that in some order.
For starters, the Braves continue to search for pieces to fortify the rotation. Yankees right-hander Sonny Gray’s name continues to be connected with Atlanta.
Jeff Passan of ESPN reported this week that Gray was part of three-way trade talks during the winter meetings. The proposed deal would have seen Jurickson Profar traded to the Yankees, Gray to Atlanta and a Braves prospect heading to Texas. The Rangers instead dealt Profar to Oakland as part of a three-team swap with Tampa Bay.
Gray just turned 29 years old and has just one year of team control remaining before hitting free agency next winter. He is arbitration eligible for the final time and is set to receive a raise from his $6.5 million salary in 2018. MLB Trade Rumors projects that figure will be $9.1 million.
One year of Gray is unlikely to command the high trade price considering his up and down tenure in New York. Perhaps one mid-level prospect could get the job done. While Gray has the ability to be a solid contributor with upside and is in need of a change of scenery, the Vanderbilt product is not the prototypical top starter who could anchor the Atlanta rotation.
It wasn’t too long ago when Gray quickly established himself as one of the top young pitchers in the game while with Oakland. That fine work took a detour in 2016 when he suffered an assortment of injuries that led to a poor season. Gray bounced back for a decent showing between the A’s and Yankees in 2017, but has not logged 200 innings since 2015 when he finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
Gray went 11-9 with a 4.91 ERA in 30 appearances (23 starts) for the Yankees in 2018. Though his 4.17 FIP (fielding independent pitching) and 8.5 K/9 suggest he was slightly better than the first glance at the stats, Gray’s 3.9 BB/9 were a career worst and coupled with his 9.5 H/9 were definitely cause for concern.
However, a big reason the Braves or any other club might have its interest piqued was Gray’s work outside of Yankee Stadium in 2018. At home he posted a 4-4 record with a 6.98 ERA in 59.1 IP and allowed 11 home runs as opponents batted .318 against him.
Gray was a different pitcher on the road. He owned a respectable 3.17 ERA, allowed just three home runs and limited opposing hitters to a .226 batting average. He also averaged 9.9 K/9 and a 1.15 WHIP across 71 innings of work. Those splits give sufficient reason to believe Gray could thrive away from the Bronx on a permanent basis.
Here are a couple of other encouraging stats for Gray. His 50% ground ball rate was seventh best among pitchers with at least 130 IP last season. It’s fair to wonder if Gray could see the same kind of improvement that fellow American Leaguer Kevin Gausman enjoyed after coming to Atlanta in a midseason trade with the Orioles, lowering his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) thanks in large part to Atlanta’s excellent defense.
Let’s get a couple of things straight beyond the numbers.
The reason that Atlanta finds itself looking for veteran pieces is that this group could use some added experience, especially with the departure of Anibal Sanchez, who acted a stabilizing force throughout the season.
As we’ve discussed at length, Gray is not considered a front of the rotation starter. While that is what the Braves are searching for, it does not preclude the club from finding other viable contributors like Gray to strengthen the starting five.
The pursuit of Gray should not hinder the Braves’ ability to broker a deal that lands a true ace starting pitcher, but it may take some creative thinking and financial wrangling to create the financial flexibility to accommodate multiple deals. It should not stop the club from trying to land that ace starter either.
However, it may also take some maneuvering in order to fit Gray and another starting pitcher int0 a rotation that already has no shortage of in-house candidates.
The Braves would currently return Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman and Julio Teheran. All of those men served as primary members of the 2018 rotation along with Sanchez, who signed with Washington.
Additionally, the Braves have Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, Luiz Gohara, Max Fried, Kolby Allard, Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson among the young guns who could audition for a starting job this spring. The depth is certainly there for Atlanta, but a battle-tested staff ace seems to be the missing ingredient in the starting five.
An intriguing sidebar to acquiring proven starting pitchers will be determining just how many spots will be available in the major league rotation of a club loaded with pitching prospects, many now knocking on the door. Follow up questions about both the readiness of those young arms and the team’s willingness to rely on them as it battles for a spot in October are also worth exploring.
Trading for Gray or any other starting pitcher could see Atlanta part with any number of young arms in the process. With several waves of starting pitching prospects in the pipeline, the club must decide how best to use those assets. Some will be given the opportunity to contribute to the big league club and others will be the currency to acquire other pieces and fill needs.
Foltynewicz seems cemented into place, but Atlanta could also consider dealing another piece or two from the major league rotation to create some added financial flexibility. In particular, Teheran is nearing the end of his long term contract and getting that $11.1 million off the books may prove advantageous in order to upgrade the starting five. That could be another moving piece in a flurry of possible trade scenarios this winter.
A critical factor to consider with any potential move is how Atlanta plans to use its remaining funds to strengthen multiple areas of need. With $25 million already added to the payroll with the signings of Donaldson and McCann, Spotrac shows the Braves currently have roughly $77 million invested in eight players. Another seven are projected to total just over $27 million through arbitration by MLB Trade Rumors,
Add in another $10-12 million in salaries for the remaining players on the 40-man roster, which admittedly could be little light, and you arrive at a total already approaching $110 million pending further moves.
Atlanta finished 2018 with a team payroll of $136 million according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That total was a franchise record but ranked just 19th highest in baseball. Given those early 2019 salary estimates, it’s fair to posit that the Braves have somewhere between $20-25 million against that 2018 number remaining to work with this winter. Or they could leave some of that as money to use on in-season upgrades.
January feels like a critical month for the Braves to make final selections and conclude their winter shopping in time for spring training. Anthopoulos has taken a deliberate and measured approach while the division rival Mets, Phillies and Nationals have been spending money and acquiring talent over the last month. That calculated method sees the Braves waiting for certain markets and deals to materialize.
Though it is unlikely to correlate with a wild spending spree, club higher-ups have given frequent assurances dating back to the hiring of Anthopoulos that the necessary funds would be there as they search for the right pieces.
Does that mean Atlanta's payroll could go up this season?
Seeing is most certainly believing when it comes to team owner Liberty Media significantly increasing its spending beyond that club record 2018 salary total. However, it’s worth noting that Braves payroll has risen steadily since 2013 and could eclipse $150 million if that trend were to continue at a rate commensurate to recent years.
Of course, there’s been absolutely no indication of a payroll bump as of yet.
A continued steady increase may be a best case scenario and it can be argued on either side of the proverbial aisle as to whether or not ownership will continue to boost the Braves’ payroll. Given the franchise becoming a much more profitable commodity since the move to SunTrust Park and The Battery, there is understandable fan sentiment that the on field product should benefit from those revenues streams.
Time will tell.