John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Yankees GM Brian Cashman has made precious few mistakes in recent years while building a young playoff team via trades and home-grown player development, but his whiff on Sonny Gray officially went into the books on Monday when he traded the starting pitcher for a prospect and a draft choice.
Even if the return on the three-way trade with the Reds and Mariners produces value in the coming years -- and the Yankees are high on a 21-year old outfielder named Josh Stowers -- Gray's failure in New York can't be erased.
Ideally he was supposed to be something akin to what Justin Verlander was for the Astros -- a final piece of a championship puzzle. Instead, Gray left Yankee decision-makers dumbfounded by his apparent inability to cope with pitching in New York.
It's always the great X-factor, of course, as not everyone is suited to the enormous public scrutiny that comes with playing in the big, bad city. Cashman knows it and factors it into every deal he makes, digging into questions about character and mental toughness.
In Gray's case, all signs pointed to someone who wouldn't be the slightest bit fazed by New York. Sure, he was from a small town in Tennessee, but he had also risen from the tragedy as a 15-year old of losing his dad in car accident to quarterback his high school to the first two state titles in its history.
And, oh by the way, he went on to throw eight scoreless innings in his first-ever postseason start for the A's, as a 23-year old rookie against the Tigers in 2013.
"Everyone who knew him thought he was the most tough-minded kid they'd ever seen," a Yankee person who didn't want to be quoted by name recalled on Monday. "People laughed at the idea he'd be intimidated by pitching in New York."
The Yankees still aren't sure if Gray's problem as a Yankee had to do with the big stage, and all the external noise, or more the tight confines of Yankee Stadium that turned him into a defensive pitcher seemingly afraid to attack the strike zone.
Whatever the case, to see him at his locker after some of his home starts, practically in a zombie-like state as he fended off questions from the media, was to know he was out of his element in the Bronx.
Certainly the Stadium was part of it: he pitched to a 6.98 ERA at 15 home starts last season, compared to a 3.17 in an equal number of road starts. The road ERA ensured that he still had value, which is why Cashman had no qualms about announcing back in November his intention to trade Gray.
And indeed there was enough competition for him to produce what two non-Yankee scouts described as a "solid" return on the trade, speaking of Stowers -- the Mariners' second-round pick last June -- and the 37th pick of this year's amateur draft via the Reds.
"There's potential value in the player and the pick, and that's not bad after the year Gray had," one scout said. "Some teams still think he can get back to being a front-of-the-rotation starter in the right environment."
Indeed, the Reds are betting on that notion, signing Gray to a three-year, $30.5 million contract extension as part of the deal, which benefited the Yankees, allowing them to get more in return than they might have for a player heading into his free agent year.
They actually acquired lefthanded-hitting second baseman Shed Long from the Reds in the trade, then dealt him to the Mariners for Stowers. At least one scout who had seen both players thinks Long is the better prospect, but as a player drafted last year Stowers doesn't have to be protected on the 40-man roster, which was important to the Yankees due to their crowded 40-man roster inventory.
As for his potential, Stowers is a righthanded-hitting outfielder with good speed, high on-base skills, and what one scout called "a quick-twitch swing that should play" against high velocity.
The Yankees have hopes that in a few years Stowers could blossom into, as one person said, "a poor man's Andrew McCutchen," capable of driving the ball to all fields.
So it's still possible that Cashman's acquisition of Gray at the 2017 in-season trade deadline could produce results someday, but it certainly didn't help the Yankees' cause as anticipated.
Whether it haunts them beyond that probably depends mostly on the comeback from Tommy John surgery of pitcher James Kaprielian, the Yankees' first-round draft pick out of UCLA in 2016 who went to the A's for Gray along with Dustin Fowler and Jorge Mateo.
Kaprielian wowed scouts in the low minors with his stuff and his command before needing surgery in the spring of 2017, to the point where the A's were willing to bet on his return by taking him in the Gray trade.
Since then he has only pitched in the Instructional League last fall, and neither Fowler or Mateo have done much for the A's themselves. So at the moment it's a trade that nobody has won.
The Yankees just had more to lose.