Sonny Gray has all the makings of a top midsummer addition.
There’s his performance so far this season, 97 innings of 3.43 ERA baseball with nearly a strikeout per inning and backed by peripherals that point more towards another step forward than they do towards significant regression. His numbers across the board represent either a return or an improvement to his Cy Young-worthy campaigns of seasons past.
There’s his age, as he will turn just 28 a few days after the conclusion of this year’s Fall Classic, an age where many a player are at the best they will ever be.
There’s his contract, not set to expire until after the 2019 season and paying him just $3.6 million after his first round of arbitration last winter.
And there’s the fact that he plays for a team in the Oakland Athletics that is as firmly entrenched in the division cellar as any in the majors. In short: they’re selling.
To say Sonny Gray is one of the most valuable trade assets in the market this deadline does not come as a surprise.
What does is the fact that one of the teams that has maintained a degree of interest in him over the last few weeks is none other than the hometown Friars.
As reported by Ken Rosenthal on several occasions – most recently, just last night – “the Padres have shown steady interest in Gray” and may view him as “a possible fit in their long-term plans.”
I have to admit, general manager A.J. Preller and the rest of his baseball operations department deserve a round of applause for thinking outside of the box enough to be considered a dark horse candidate to land one of the league’s best available pitchers in a summer where they may be the most concrete seller in the majors.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Here’s why.
1) The Cost
There are a number of contenders this year who would do well to add a controllable arm like Gray to their starting rotation. The Yankees are making do with an ace-level Luis Severino and an up-and-down Masahiro Tanaka, and just lost Michael Pineda to Tommy John. The Dodgers are going to be without the best pitcher on the planet for the next month or so as other starters struggle to stay on the field. The Cubs, even after the addition of Jose Quintana from the White Sox, are feeling the pressure to repeat, and could lose both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey to free agency this off-season. By no means are the Padres swooping into a relatively empty market, and with Sonny Gray still technically able to be a member of the Oakland rotation for the next two full seasons, it’s hard to see the A’s selling him for anything less than top dollar. There will be a bidding war, one I’m not sure the Padres will be willing to play a part in.
2) The Standings
Building off of that, all three of those aforementioned front offices (as well as a handful of others) have far more motivation than the Padres to land a top player now. As it stands now, the hometown team is even deeper into a rebuild than the A’s, who are at least hovering somewhat near .500 in a division the Astros appear primed to continue to run away with. That motivation will make it difficult for the Padres to outbid competitors for Gray’s increasingly-expensive services. Adding an asset like Gray amounts to little more than a flip for Preller and Co., as he will hit the open market long before the Padres return to the playoff picture, and the chance to turn a profit on a prized prospect pales in comparison to the goals of a contender eyeing a World Series title. A trade for Gray now means only a trade of Gray later on. Which leads us to the final piece of the puzzle…
3) The Risk
To make a move for Gray meaningful, the Padres will need to be able to trade him for greater value than what they give up to get him in the first place. That much should be obvious. However, that assumes that Gray is a worthy bet to maintain or (dare we say) increase his value. Given his salivating mix of youth, controllability, and talent, it’s not hard to see his value nearing its ceiling right now. If he maintained his recent performance as a Padre, he’d be at the very least a step or two closer to being a free agent. That ignores the risk that he might not, though. It was just one season ago that Gray was limping to the finish of a career-worst campaign, plagued by nagging injuries that significantly impacted his numbers. Sure, his 3.25 FIP, 12.1 percent swinging strike rate, and 93-mph average fastball velocity are nice this year. But what about the 4.67 FIP, .319 BABIP, and 17.5 HR/FB rate that he finished his 2016 season with? Those kinds of numbers trend far closer to awful than awesome.
Of course, there are a handful of potential positives to adding the undersized Vanderbilt product. The impact of Petco Park on those homer-happy fly balls he induces, as well as the always-popular effect of working under Darren Balsley, give him a good chance of maintaining his stellar 2017 performance in the navy-and-white (ugh…) of the hometown team. The impact of a blockbuster addition on the attention of the Friar Faithful in the midst of a long and exhaustive tank cannot be overlooked either. With the addition of Gray, attendance every fifth day should be expected to show a significant spike, providing the franchise with dollars that could come in very handy in the near future.
That being said, selling the prospects necessary to land an arm like Gray should be done for more than a slim chance at a potential profit and a few thousand more tickets every week. This is especially the case considering the talent-rich, now-focused systems that the Padres will be bidding against for the rights to the right-hander. Sure, the Padres have prospects too, but the vast majority of them are years away from the bigs and, despite their ceilings, still carry plenty of risk given their timelines. Gray is likely to cost multiple Top-100 prospects with near-term arrival dates, an asking price the Padres simply do not have the market-value resources to meet relative to other suitors.
I’m all for the hometown team doing their due diligence on a guy who could conceivably fit into the organization’s long-term plans. However, in a summer where several assets remain on the team’s payroll (Richard, Chacin, Solarte, and a certain bullpen ace) and several suitors remain in pursuit of the deadline’s top pitching target, the Friars’ front office is likely better off directing their attention elsewhere.