sonny gray, Oakland Athletics

A’s trade Donaldson but determined to keep Gray

A’s could trade Donaldson but need to keep Gray

Remembering the first time Sonny Gray pitched for the A’s is a simple task. It was 2013 and the game was in Pittsburgh. He pitched 2.0 innings in the middle of July, allowing just one hit,no walks and striking out three batters. That day, I thought, “Wow. We really need to hold onto this kid.” Gray was just 23.

By the time October came around I knew I’d been on the right track that day in July. He’s talented and the A’s needed to keep Gray. Gray started Games 2 and 5 of the American League Division Series, both against a then-extraordinarily dominant Justin Verlander and he held his own and went pitch for pitch with Verlander.

keep Gray, Sonny Gray
Sonny Gray. Thearon Henderson/Getty Images.

Gray ended up with a no-decision in Game 2, pitching 8.0 innings and allowing just four hits and two walks but no runs while striking out nine Tigers’ batters. He took the loss in Game 5 but that was more due to the A’s inability to hit against Verlander. Gray went 5.0 innings allowing three earned runs and Verlander no-hit the A’s through six innings and pitched a complete game shutout.

However, this isn’t about Verlander. This is about why the A’s opted to trade Josh Donaldson and have been making sure that the baseball world knows that Sonny Gray is not available. The two have one major similarity. When Donaldson was traded last November he was not yet arbitration eligible and would be under team control for the next four seasons. Gray is not yet arbitration eligible and will remain under team control for the next four seasons.

So why trade Donaldson,arguably the A’s best player and who is now the reigning AL MVP, but be adamant about not trading Gray? There are more reasons that one would think. First of all the A’s wouldn’t have been able to afford to keep both players as their salaries went up once they hit their arbitration years and likely would have had to let both walk via free agency. However, now there MAY be a chance that they could offer Gray some kind of extension, yet that remains to be seen.

Donaldson is also four years Gray’s senior. Gray, 26, will be pitching in just his third full MLB season in 2016, while Donaldson, 30, will be playing in his fifth season. He did not even play in the majors in 2011 despite a late call-up in 2010. Donaldson’s career is peaking right now. Gray on the other hand hit the yard running, starting playoff games after half a season of being in the big leagues and hasn’t even hit his best years yet.

2015 Players' Choice Awards, Josh Donaldson, keep Gray
Josh Donaldson. Getty Images.

There was also unsubstantiated controversy between Donaldson and now-vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane. Some say it was an argument over playing time, that Donaldson needed rest. While others propose that it was Donaldson’s public criticism of the team’s ownership that prompted the trade to Toronto. However, Beane said he was unaware of the comments made by Donaldson and even if he had they wouldn’t have mattered. The trade was going through anyway.

Beane also got the prospects that he wanted from the Donaldson trade. Pitcher Sean Nolin, who unfortunately spent most of 2015 injured, was one who Beane had long coveted. He also got Kendall Graveman who made the A’s rotation at age 23 and showed signs of brilliance over the summer. Like any rookie he struggled at times, however, in the month of June Graveman was as good as any pitcher in baseball.

Then there is the A’s now number one prospect Franklin Barreto, has tore it up at High Class-A Stockton at the age of 19 last season. Whether Beane intends to keep Barreto or use him as a bargaining chip later on shouldn’t matter.

The youngster was voted a Top 100 Prospect by Baseball America Top (#86 overall), MLB.com (#70), FanGraphs (#79), and Minor League Ball (#38). He’ll be a valuable asset regardless of how the A’s use him. It seems the Donaldson trade gets judged all the time, however, you can’t judge a trade that included mostly all prospects until those prospects have developed into big leaguers – or not.

Another controversy surrounding the Donaldson trade was that A’s beat writer Susan Slusser had tweeted this:

This tweet caused many people to believe that Donaldson was untouchable. We now know that no player is untouchable. We also know that maybe we should wait to make judgements on what is going to happen until we hear them from the head man himself. This year that includes not only Beane but general manager David Forst.

Still the words came down from Beane this time and not an unnamed A’s executive. On Saturday Beane told MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM that he and Forst had been approached by a number of teams inquiring about Gray, including “some pretty aggressive suitors.” Beane went on to say,

“We’ve been adamant with teams that we want to hang on to Gray.”

Besides the obvious fact that Gray, who finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting in 2015, is about to hit his prime, there may be even more to the story behind hanging onto Gray than meets the eye.

Over the past couple of seasons A’s have collected a talented young group of prospects,mostly through trades although some are homegrown. Some will be used as trade bait, but there’s a core group that will be in the major leagues by 2017-18 that Beane wants to keep together.

This group is made up of first baseman Matt Olson, catcher Jacob Nottingham, lefty Sean Manaea and third basemen Matt Chapman, Renato Nunez and possibly even Barreto.

“We’re going to hold on to those guys, which creates a gap between now and when they arrive and become productive big-leaguers,” Beane says. “Our approach will be to make sure we keep that core group of kids together.”

Keeping that core group of kids together won’t be the same as the way the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros have completely rebuilt their entire clubs, but it will give the A’s more of a chance to compete, especially if they are able to hang on to Gray preferably through a contract extension. That may be asking a bit much though.

Either way, if the A’s keep Gray through the 2020 season he will be able to be a leader to these younger players while still in his prime. He’s already the ace of the A’s staff and there is a lot he can teach the new players whether by giving them advice that he’d wished he had gotten or by modeling his well-known work ethic.

A's, Stephen Vogt, keep Gray, Sonny Gray
Stephen Vogt & Sonny Gray. Getty Images.

There are so many reasons that the A’s trading Josh Donaldson is so different from the situation with Sonny Gray. You can cite everything from age, to controversy, to Gray’s natural ability on the mound that was evident since day one.

Then there are the talented prospects he can mentor while still under team control, prospects he can lead to hopefully keep the A’s competitive for some time to come. Of course there will be, as Beane noted, a gap but that gap will be short and the Athletics could easily be back in contention within a year, maybe two.

Despite always wanting to field a competitive team, which did not work for a number of reasons in 2015. It appears Beane knew what he was going for in the long run and that was not trading Sonny Gray and there are compelling reasons not to. These are the Oakland A’s, however, and as everyone knows – no player is completely untouchable.

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