MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 11: Sonny Gray #55 of the New York Yankees delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning of the game on September 11, 2018 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Photo: Staff Writer
Photo: Staff Writer

Braves still connected with Yankees’ Sonny Gray

As the Yankees continue shopping Sonny Gray – and those talks will reportedly intensify soon - the Braves remain linked with the Vanderbilt product. 

The Braves checked in on Gray earlier in the offseason and are among the teams who’ve maintained interest in the righty. With C.C. Sabathia cleared to pitch, talks on Gray are expected to “ramp up” according to Fancred’s Jon Heyman, who included the Braves among six potential suitors.

Gray, who has one season of team control remaining, underwhelmed under New York’s bright lights. He produced a 4.30 ERA and 1.496 WHIP (tied for worst in his career) across 30 starts. He allowed a career-high in hits (9.5) and walks (3.9) per nine innings. The Yankees bumped him to the bullpen in August.

The 29-year-old wasn’t a complete disaster. He pitched well away from Yankee Stadium, earning a 3.17 ERA and holding opponents to a .226 average in those 71 innings. He was hit for three homers on the road opposed to 11 at home (in 59-1/3 innings).

Since joining the Yankees, Gray has a 2.84 ERA on the road against a 6.55 ERA in New York. “Just get him out of there” is becoming a common, and understanding, phrase.

He also fared better after the All-Star break, accumulating a 3.63 ERA in the second half opposed to his 5.46 first-half mark (in significantly fewer innings, but a small positive nonetheless).

Before taking on the country’s largest market, Gray was among the American League’s best hurlers in Oakland. He owned a 2.91 ERA across 427 innings (64 starts) in 2014-15. His work in 2015 resulted in an All-Star appearance and placed him third in Cy Young voting. He was a hot commodity when the A’s elected to finally pull the trigger on a deal.

He’s not as coveted this time around, but there are enough franchises who think he needs a change of scenery. ESPN reported the Braves “had traction” on a Gray trade earlier this winter, a three-team deal with the Yankees and Rangers that fell through.

The Yankees’ initial asking price from the Braves included a major-league player, and there’s no indication they’ve lowered their expectations. The Braves maintain they’re content with the current stable of starters, while the outfield and perhaps bullpen are greater needs.

Still, it’s easy to see why the Braves are intrigued. Gray possesses fair upside, and the Braves likely believe their organization, chemistry and coaches are an ideal combination to extract his best. He would be in a lower-key environment - not Oakland small but certainly not as pressuring as New York - and if it doesn’t work out, the Braves aren’t tied to him long-term.

The Braves have sought a veteran starter all offseason and Gray would be among the better options potential-wise, with the cost of Corey Kluber and others prohibitive.

It’s not a risk-less acquisition: Gray isn’t of the ilk he used to be. Certainly, how he reacted on the big stage isn’t worth ignoring for a team with postseason aspirations. If Gray supposedly couldn’t handle New York, who’s to say he’d be valuable in pressure-laden October? Then there are cost concerns, in addition to a possible bidding war that might include more desperate teams.

Cincinnati, for instance, has made several veteran moves in an attempt to field a competent team in 2019. Their pitching coach, Derek Johnson, was Gray’s at Vanderbilt. The Reds are among those who might press more than the Braves would.

Gray isn’t a frontline starter anymore. The Braves aren’t going to trade a package worthy of such, even if they took an optimistic approach and felt he could recapture his early Oakland form. 

As for the financial side: The Yankees settled with Gray for $7.5 million before the arbitration deadline. The Braves want to maintain some financial flexibility for in-season moves, and depending how they address the outfield, adding Gray’s salary may require moving money around.

Julio Teheran, who’s due $11 million, would be expendable. The Braves could plug Gray into his spot and leave the fifth slot for a youngster. The team hasn’t seemed overly interested in moving Teheran as of today given their rotation need and prospects’ uncertainty.

It might not be the perfect move, but with spring training a month away, Gray could be a reasonable swing at upgrading a team hoping to go a step further in the playoffs.

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