NY Sports Day
Matt Mankiewich

Karpin: Pinstripes Never Fit The Road Gray

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Sometimes, no matter how good you feel about a trade, it just doesn’t work out. Such was the case of the Yankees and Sonny Gray.

When the Yankees acquired the right hander in exchange for three minor league prospects (Outfielders Dustin Fowler, and Jorge Mateo, along with pitcher James Kaprielian) at the 2017 trade deadline, the feeling was that they improved their starting rotation for that season and beyond, but, for one reason or another, Gray never lived up to the hype.

Did the Yankees misjudge Gray’s ability to pitch in New York?

The Yankees won’t publicly admit it but if you read between the lines with their willingness to unload Gray after only a season and a half, the trade has turned out to be a mistake. “Our intention is to move Sonny Gray and relocate him when we get the proper return,” GM Brian Cashman said in January but he was only following up what the Yankees said their plan was, from back in November. The impact of that mistake in judgment is yet to be determined, depending on if any of the three prospects they gave up turns out to be a solid major league player.

The deal was completed when the Reds were able to come to an agreement with Gray on a three year contract extension, as he was set to become a free agent after the season. The Yanks, who also sent LHP Reiver Sanmartin to Cincinnati, settled for infield prospect Shed Long and a Competitive Balance Round A Pick in the 2019 First-Year Player Draft in exchange for the 29 year old right hander who just couldn’t pitch in New York. The Yankees then traded Long to Seattle for 21-year old outfielder Josh Stowers. (I feel like there’s a Marx Brothers line there, “Shed didn’t stay with the Yankees very ‘Long’”) Long was Cincinnati’s #7 overall prospect but he’s a converted catcher and still needs to develop defensively at second base.

“You have to gather all the information on potential players you’re acquiring,” Cashman said at the time they made the deal in July 2017. You can rely on all the analytical date and information that is out there but you can never measure how someone is going to play in New York, for either the Yankees or Mets. That also applies to cities like Boston and Philadelphia. Cincinnati and St. Louis may be great “baseball towns” but the pressure to succeed there does not come close to New York and those other cities.

After every outing that Gray struggled, the Yankees always peddled the “company line” that “the stuff is there.” The stuff may have been there but the way Gray employed it left you scratching your head. It appeared that he was always trying to make the “perfect pitch” and that approach got him into trouble on the mound.

Gray’s career splits showed a difference of an average of 80 more points in batting average against when he fell behind in the count, as opposed to when he got out in front.

(According to Baseballreference.com, last season, when Gray was behind in the count, there was a .299 batting average against. It was .218 when he got ahead of the hitters)

He wouldn’t be able to “grind” through a game when he didn’t have his best stuff, leading to short outings and more pressure on the bullpen. Then there were the at-bats when Gray would get out in front of a hitter and fail to put them away as he began to “nibble.” 0-1 turned into 3-1, while 0-2 and 1-2 counts turned into 3-2 and the results of most of those at-bats was either a walk or a hit and innings that kinda “snowballed” on him. This is why I gave him the nickname that would fit as the new villain in the latest Batman movie, “The Nibbler.”

Some scouts have compared Stowers to a young Mike Cameron. He’s an elite base stealer and is an outstanding defender in the outfield. What is also notable about the Mariners’ second round pick in the 2018 Draft is his baseball I.Q. and he is a “Student of the game.” The 21-year old has a great working knowledge of the strike zone and he’s already shown an ability to make adjustments with his swing. Even at his young age, Stowers has displayed exceptional character and leadership skills.

During his final season at Louisville last year, Stowers hit .336 with a .477 OBP and had 72 runs scored in 62 games. He also reached base safely in the final 47 games of the Collegiate regular season. After being drafted in June, Stowers played for the Mariners Class A, Short Season affiliate in the Northwest League and posted a .260 batting average with a.380 OBP. in 58 games.

Although the Yankees were looking for the “proper return,” they realized that they were not going to get a whole lot of value back so they settled for Long and turned that into Stowers, who is athletic and displays more than just a bundle of “on the field” talent. The bottom line is Gray didn’t figure in the Yankees plans for 2019 and beyond so, in that regard, they accounted for their mistake.


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