Remember when Sonny Gray seemed to have one foot in an Oakland A's uniform and one foot on the trading block? Those were interesting times.
Now they may be ready for a comeback.
No two Major League Baseball offseasons are exactly alike, but a prevailing theme through all of them is the widespread need for starting pitching. In a related story, another prevailing theme are the showers of cash that fall on the best free-agent aces.
The 2016-17 offseason, however, presents a conundrum: There are no aces on the open market.
Rich Hill is good, but also older and not very durable. After him, the best free-agent pitcher is Jeremy Hellickson. After him...Ivan Nova? Jason Hammel? Bartolo Colon? I mean, you can take your pick.
And so, teams in the market for an ace must turn to the trade market. The trade winds are blowing around names like Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Chris Archer. All good pitchers! Certainly better than any on the open market, anyway.
But therein lies another conundrum. The teams that employ those pitchers know they have key pieces of supply in a world flooded with demand. They can jack up the sticker prices, which could force suitors toward more affordable options.
Which brings us to Gray.
There's a good reason Gray's name doesn't loom as large on the trade market. He put up a 3.08 ERA in 219 innings in 2014 and then finished third in the American League Cy Young voting after posting a 2.73 ERA in 208 innings in 2015. But in 2016, he pitched just 117 innings in 22 starts and watched his ERA balloon to an ugly 5.69.
Nonetheless, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com has it on good authority that the A's are ready to field some calls on their 27-year-old right-hander.
"Sonny has been a popular trade conversation for the last couple of years, so it won't be new," A's general manager David Forst said at the GM meetings in Scottsdale. "Certainly it's expected, and we have to be open to anything at this point considering where we are and how much work we have to do to catch up with the teams at the top of our division. I can't speak to how aggressive teams will be or when the calls will come in, but we have to be open to that conversation."
When pressed, he added: "It's nice to have assets people want."
Given the nature of the A's finances, it's relevant that Gray will stop being cheap in 2017. Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors projects his salary will go from $528,000 to $3.7 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility.
Gray's arbitration eligibility also means his free agency is now there on the horizon, just three years away. Coming off a 93-loss season in 2016, the A's are facing a rebuilding stretch that may not be over by then. Trading him for pieces that could boost said rebuild could be their best play.
The deflation of Gray's value in 2016 should be a deal-breaker, but the lack of options on the open market and the gigantic price tags of alternative trade options are just the things to cancel that out. Rather than a broken pitcher to stay away from, teams may be compelled to look at Gray as a once-great pitcher who could be remade.
Gray is still in his prime years, and one positive sign from his rotten 2016 is that he wasn't plagued by bad stuff. He lost only 0.2 miles per hour off his fastball from 2015, sitting at 92.7 mph. And according to Baseball Savant, he experienced a significant increase in spin rate.
Gray's real problem? Command.
He went from 2.6 walks per nine innings in 2015 to 3.2 walks per nine innings in 2016. One thing Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs noticed early on is that Gray wasn't able to command his breaking stuff. He was throwing too many non-competitive curveballs and sliders way down below the strike zone. That would lead to walks.
That also made it easier for hitters to sit fastball. Gray could find the zone with those, but too often found the wrong parts of it. Per Brooks Baseball, he threw more four-seamers and sinkers right down the middle:
Hitters responded accordingly. They hit .310 against Gray's four-seamer and .380 against his sinker. This after hitting .262 and .270 against them the prior season.
The shoulder injury is especially alarming when paired with what was going on with Gray's release point earlier in the year. It was down from where it had been throughout 2015. That won't go unnoticed or unworried about by potential suitors.
But the silver lining also isn't hard to spot. Albeit in limited exposure, Gray's release point did move back up toward the end of the year. That's a sign he's not necessarily damaged goods, and that his struggles in 2016 may have been due to a mere mechanical funk.
Such things can be fixed. And in this case, fixing such a thing could turn Gray back into what he was in 2014 and 2015: one of the best pitchers in baseball.
What it would cost to take this chance won't be cheap. The A's can demand one or two elite prospects or perhaps some established major league talent with controllability and untapped upside.
However, that doesn't sound so bad compared to what it would take to land one of the other guys.
Sale ($38 million through 2019) and Archer ($39 million through 2021) have value even beyond what's left on their contracts. That would have to be matched by a bucket of top prospects in a trade.
Verlander and Greinke don't have that kind of excess value on top of their remaining contracts. But if a team deals for either one, it would have to take on all or most of the $84 million (or $106 million if his 2020 option vests) owed to Verlander or the $172.5 million owed to Greinke.
Since going home without an ace isn't an option, the choice before teams is to either pay a huge price for a sure thing or a lesser price for a lottery ticket. Gray's the latter, and he could be a winner.