Sonny Gray to Oakland

By Jason Wojciechowski on July 10, 2013 at 11:03 PM

I'm going to warn you right up front that I don't think there's much to say about Sonny Gray getting the call to the Large Leagues. He's pitched well in Triple-A, he's a good prospect, the A's had a 40-man spot available after designating Adam Rosales for assignment, and the All-Star break gives the team an opportunity to send Dan Straily down to Sacramento without the required 10-day stay having to mean that he misses 10 Oakland games.

So sure, why not, right? Gray's clocks on free agency and arbitration start, but given the lateness in the year, even if he's in the big leagues every day from here until the end of his career, he's still not going to be a free agent until after 2019 and he won't be arbitration-eligible until after 2016. Not many managers will complain about adding a bullpen piece with a flaming fastball and an excellent curve when that piece doesn't sell out the future in any way.

There is something interesting to think about / speculate on as regards Gray's role, though. Even before he was drafted, the story on Gray has been that he might fit better as a high-end relief arm than a starting pitcher. He's never yet relieved in a game as a professional, but a prospect of his caliber wouldn't. The question is what happens if Gray starts blowing major-league hitters out of the water as a reliever over the next few weeks. Does the temptation to keep him in a shutdown bullpen role grow, especially since it's reinforced by the common scouting wisdom? Do the A's risk creating disputes and dissent in the front office and between the front office and field coaches about Gray's role?

My instinct is to say, "Sure, that could happen, but it's worth the risk." If the premise of the question is "Gray becomes a stellar reliever," then the downside of the whole situation is that the A's have another stellar reliever. It's one of them good problems to have is what I'm saying.

I would also note that the A's bullpen situation may mitigate the potential problem a bit. Gray isn't going to jump straight into the eighth-inning role and make himself indispensable there because the A's already have a very nice eighth-inning man in Ryan Cook. Sean Doolittle has had a few struggles here and there, but overall, Bob Melvin has a very good seventh-inning man, too. And obviously Gray isn't supplanting Grant Balfour at closer any time soon.

So in this scenario we're dreaming up, Gray gets some innings here and there, fifth and sixth innings, occasional sevenths, and acquits himself well. Then the A's have a hole in the rotation or someone struggles and Billy Beane calls down to Bob Melvin and says "Gray's got to start." What's Melvin going to do, complain that he's losing his ace sixth-inning man? "I'll have to use Pat Neshek! Or Jerry Blevins! The horror!"

Right. So I guess I ain't worried about the bullpen role is what I've arrived at.

UPDATE

Chris makes an excellent point, and one that I should have mentioned. Grant Balfour is a free agent after this year, so the A's being the A's, the team could easily find itself closer-less if Balfour gets any kind of substantial offer from someone who likes the cut of his jib. Or the cut of his (at present) 1.72 ERA and 24/24 save record.

If Sonny Gray blows up in the bullpen (in a good way) for the next few months, the A's could very well enter 2014 with a little bit of an Aroldis Chapman situation, where different parties have different ideas in mind about his role. I can't speak for Melvin's inclinations, but it's possible that he could want Gray in the closer role. The front office, given that they appear to have drafted and developed Gray as a starter, may want him to stay in that role. Gray himself, you'd think, would want to be a starter—look at Edwin Jackson's stats and his contract and think about how many relievers make that kind of money, and there's my reasoning—but I brought up Chapman for a reason. Sometimes players are erratic or weird or have desires that aren't easily explained by normal economic rationality. Or at least obvious economic rationality.

(All of this applies just as well even if Ryan Cook were to be the closer. Everyone bumps up a slot and suddenly Gray isn't a middle reliever but the other setup man with Doolittle.)

In any case, Chris is right that we shouldn't blow off the possibility of Gray finding himself stuck in a key bullpen position via the path dependency of baseball role-making—the relief corps looks deep right now, but Balfour leaving in free agency takes a big chunk out of that in a hurry.

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