Why Oakland Athletics Sonny Gray is a Perfect Fit for the Chicago Cubs


The Chicago Cubs winning the 2015 World Series seemed a bit far-fetched although many of us were mesmerized by their magical run into the National League Championship Series for the first time since the 2003 season against the Florida Marlins.

After defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Wild Card game, and surpassing the St. Louis Cardinals in the Division Series, the assumption that the North Siders would end their 107-year championship drought seemed plausible, based on a prediction in the 1989 science fiction film “Back to the Future Part II”.

Albeit, not even the co-writer of the screen play Bob Gale, could predict the stellar performances from veteran starter Matt Harvey along with the composure and precision of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard versus Chicago’s young sluggers including third baseman Kris Bryant, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and 22-year-old outfielder Kyle Schwarber, who went 9-for-27 in the postseason with five round trippers and eight RBI.

It just goes to show that young pitching always beats young hitting — although with the emergence of Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, Bryant, Rizzo, and Schwarber — there is no question that the Chicago Cubs are a force to be reckoned with in the National League Central, and will therefore have their fair share of postseason appearances for years to come.

However if they ever hope to advance past the NLCS, the Cubs are going to have to shore up their starting rotation. At this point Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester can only do so much. But what if they had a third ace to put them over the top?

Like Sonny Gray

Young studs waiting in the wings.

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Even though Gray isn’t arbitration eligible until 2017 and won’t become a free agent until after the 2020 season, now is the perfect time to shop the Smyrna, Tennessee native — especially for an Oakland Athletics organization that is focused on the future.

After the inevitable second-half collapse and performance in the 2014 American League Wild Card game, former general manager Billy Beane had a fire sale, which involved nine teams and 27 players. Slowly but surely, Beane began replenishing the farm system with the departure of catcher John Jaso — who netted the Athletics utility man Ben Zobrist — and ultimately flipped him to the Kansas City Royals on July 28th for top pitching prospect Sean Manaea (who ranks 3rd on Oakland’s MLB.com prospect list) and California native Aaron Brooks. Five days earlier, southpaw Scott Kazmir was dealt to the Houston Astros in exchange for power-hitting catcher Jacob Nottingham (8th) and starting pitcher Daniel Mengden (25th).

Until these guys climb the ranks of the minor league system, there is no telling whether or not they’ll pan out in the show. Luckily for us, we need to look no further than the 2014 and 2015 Texas League Champion Midland RockHounds to track their progress.

#50 Sean Manaea, LHP:

The southpaw from Indiana immediately impressed Oakland’s Double-A affiliate, after tossing seven scoreless frames against the Corpus Christi Hooks allowing just three hits and striking out nine. Most hitters are overmatched by his 90-96 mile-an-hour fastball and Manaea has a respectable slider and change-up to keep the opposition off-balance. In his last 10 starts, the 6’5″ 235-pound right-hander has accumulated an immaculate 7-0 record with a 1.75 ERA and a 72:20 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

#34 Renato Nunez, 3B:

During the postseason for the ‘Hounds, Nunez sported a .409 batting average (9-22) with two home runs (one of them being a grand slam) and 12 RBI in six games against the Hooks (Astros) and Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Kansas City). That doesn’t even take into account his .354 batting average with three moonshots and 14 RBI in his last 11 games of the regular season. In two of those contests, Nunez recorded two grand slams in back-to-back games on September 5 and 6.

*Give me a second to catch my breath…

In the 2015 Arizona Fall League the Venezuelan native had a three-homer game against the Scottsdale Scorpions and racked up 5 RBI, going 3-5 on the night. For more details on Nunez, feel free to read my article on the third base prospect HERE.

#21 Matt Olson, 1B:

Olson ranks second on Oakland’s Top-30 prospect list, with an outstanding amount of power potential from the left side of the plate. In 2014, the 21-year-old finished the campaign with 37 home runs for High-A Stockton and despite the fact that this left-handed slugger’s offensive production dipped at Security Bank Ballpark, he managed to hit 17 round trippers. In the field, Olson has average range, but has improve dramatically at first — lets not forget his versatility to play at the corner outfield spots. The biggest concern with Olson is his patience at the plate. His strikeout numbers are off the charts and it shows in his .250 batting average.

These are just a few of Oakland’s superstars, just waiting to make a positive impact in the Major Leagues. Even though several of them are a couple of seasons away from cracking the roster, why waste Gray’s potential on a ball club with more holes than Swiss cheese at this point?

The Chicago Cubs would be a perfect trade partner for Gray’s services, and are stocked with young Major League ready talent. Imagine a deal where new general manager David Forst shipped his ace, and in return, obtained say shortstop Baez, pitching prospect Ryan Williams, and Schwarber. This might be pushing the envelope just a bit, but for an impact player like Gray, who knows, acquiring one of Baez, Schwarber, or outfielder Jorge Soler might not be out of the question — with an additional two or three prospects of course.

How long can Gray keep up this performance?

On the other hand, you have to take into account the chances of Gray breaking down at some point in his career. Luckily enough, he’s had three superb seasons — with a 33-20 record in 491 innings and an opponent batting average of .223. However, an article from Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus mentions that Gray’s declining performance has already begun — questioning his inverted delivery to the plate, as a result of being a “spine-tilting pitcher”.

Aug 28, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics pitcher Sonny Gray (54) pitches against the Los Angeles Angels during the first inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

"“(Gray) is one of these spine-tilting pitchers… the greatest flaw in an otherwise efficient delivery.” “… he invokes a late change of posture, contorting his spine during the phases of highest intensity in the kinetic chain of pitching. The spine-tilt is blatant and clearly intended to manipulate the flight path of the baseball, coaxing a taller release point in general while specifically drifting on the lateral plane based on the type of pitch that is being delivered.”"

While this spine-tilt helps Gray locate and command his pitches effectively, there would seem to be some concern about this 2011 first-round pick putting so much pressure on his shoulder. Right off the bat, there are two pitchers that come to mind with this unorthodox delivery.

Former Cubs pitcher Mark Prior falls in this category, along with Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals are analyzed in a 2010 article by Kyle Boddy of DriveLine baseball.

Boddy strongly believes that the “Inverted W” can cause an extended elbow release — thus causing an excessive strain on the pitcher’s elbow. This “increased stress” on the anterior band of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), which is meant to stabilize the elbow as the forearm follows behind it, has been overused.

Typically if there was some discomfort, the immediate course of action would be to shutdown the pitcher for several days, monitor his progress with the training staff, and if everything’s okay, to toss off flat-ground. Although in most cases, discomfort in the shoulder or forearm can lead to Tommy John surgery.

Then again, Gray has managed to defy these odds, despite his small frame, with several comparisons to former Athletic Tim Hudson. And rightfully so, the 25-year-old has that “bulldog” mentality who can effectively mix-up his pitches while giving the ball club 200+ innings every season. Nonetheless, for an organization who is building for the future, the time might be now to cash in on their ace and let these young hurlers and sluggers shine when they get the call in a few years or so.