Sonny Gray had his worst year of his career in 2016, but that hasn’t stopped the Houston Astros from checking in to see if he’s available. Should team management be aiming higher?
Even with the emergence of the superbullpen, starting pitching remains highly valued in today’s game. Sure, relief pitching has dominated offseason talk with the likes of Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon inking record contracts for guys who close ballgames. We’ve seen the Cubs and Indians rely on Andrew Miller and Chapman in the World Series, but without starting pitching it’s tough to be an elite ballclub at the major league level.
This is why top of the rotation hurlers cost a pretty penny in both the trade market and free agency. Without really any elite options on the open market to start this winter outside of Rich Hill, it’s been controllable starting pitchers that have captured the headlines.
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Boston set the starting pitching market when they traded arguably the top prospect in baseball, Yoan Moncada, along with an extremely talented young right hander in Michael Kopech for all-star starter Chris Sale.
Now Sale is in his prime and remains extremely affordable for the next three seasons. This is partly why the price was so steep. This trade prompted rumors about other controllable top of the rotation pieces in Jose Quintana and Chris Archer, both of whom were frequently mentioned as trade targets at the time of the 2016 trade deadline. Both will hit free agency in four years time, and many teams have had dialogue in acquiring these aces.
One of these clubs seems to be the Houston Astros, who’ve had a particularly active winter already. However, most of the moves have been to improve the team’s offense. Early in the offseason, general manager Jeff Lunhow was able to agree to terms with two veteran middle of the order hitters in Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick. This comes on the heels of a late season acquisition of Cuban star Yulieski Gurriel, who looks to have a hold of first base. These additions improve a lineup that already includes young stars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman.
Lunhow did sign bounceback candidate Charlie Morton to the rotation, but many would agree that the Astros need more. It seems that Houston may think so too, as it was reported that by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, that the team has checked in with the Oakland Athletics on the availability of Sonny Gray.
Gray, 27, was seen as one of the premier up and coming starting pitchers in baseball as he put together three straight stellar seasons prior to 2016. However, things went a little off course this past year.
An ERA of 5.69 in 22 starts and a career-high 3.2 BB/9 IP does not scream “valuable trade asset”, but the Astros may be simply buying low on the young right hander. The Vanderbilt product just never seemed right last season, as he suffered from control and perhaps durability issues. The good news is that he was throwing just as hard as in prior seasons and his strikeout rate was consistent with his outstanding 2014 and 2015 campaigns.
However, Gray isn’t a typical top of the rotation pitcher. He won’t blow you away with a nasty arsenal, rather just using a good feel and maintaining control of the strike zone to remain effective. Still coming off of a poor year, there are certainly better pitchers available probably for around a similar cost, considering that the Athletics aren’t pressured to move their ace with multiple years of control left.
Houston is in desperate need of a consistent shutdown pitcher who gives the club length and productivity every five days. It’s for this reason that Jose Quintana and/or Chris Archer should be the top priority for the Astros front office in the coming weeks.
While Archer didn’t produce the numbers that he did in 2015, he still is one of the most talented hurlers in the game and brings along a ridiculously cheap contract for a player of his caliber. At 28 years old, the Rays ace is in the prime of his playing career and racks up strikeouts at a much higher rate than Gray.
Quintana is a different top option as his consistency, opposed to Archer’s potential, is his main appeal to many prospective trade partners. He’s pitched to an ERA of under 3.35 in the past three years and has never posted an earned run average of above 3.51 since his rookie campaign. Controllable for four seasons, he would be an outstanding upgrade as he is one of the safest hurlers that baseball has to offer.
There are many teams that could use an elite starter, but the Astros may have the greatest need. Dallas Keuchel‘s Cy Young campaign two seasons ago looks like more of an outlier. He can probably be a solid number three option, but his pure stuff limits him. Lance McCullers is the most talented, but he has had problems staying on the field. Collin McHugh and Mike Fiers remain merely innings eaters at this point.
In addition, Houston has the prospect base to swing a blockbuster trade. Joe Musgrove and A.J. Reed are quality prospects who’ve gotten a taste of the show. At the top of the Astros farm system, Francis Martes and Kyle Tucker also have high ceilings. There is certainly a deal to be had, especially with the glutton of trade rumors that have swirled since the trade deadline last August.
Sonny Gray would certainly be a welcomed addition to Houston’s lackluster rotation, but there are more talented pitchers available in Quintana and Archer. The Astros are merely doing their due diligence based on the report, but he should be priority number two because of some of the concerns that arose during the 2016 regular season.
It remains to be seen whether a deal can actually be struck before pitchers and catchers report, but there is no doubt that the Astros remain a team on the edge of serious perennial World Series contention. They just need a front end starting pitcher who can push them over the top in the years to come.