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Were the Jays Scouting Sonny Gray?

Bullshit season is really gearing up now, as the mere appearance of a Blue Jays scout at another team’s ballpark can now, apparently, send Jays fans into a tizzy. It’s hard to blame them, though. Sussing out what the club’s immediate plans are is difficult at the best of times, and it takes on more importance than ever as they head into the crucial month of July, in this foul year of Our Lord, two thousand and seventeen.

It’s with that as the backdrop that we approach Susan Slusser’s latest piece for the San Francisco Chronicle, in which she informs us that the Blue Jays were among a host of clubs who sent “multiple executives and scouts” to Oakland on Sunday, as pitcher Sonny Gray took to the mound for the Athletics.

In the very next paragraph Susan notes that clubs may also have been there to look at infielder Jed Lowrie — a much more logical target for the Jays — but by then I suspect that a bunch of people had already gone rushing to their computers screaming about the Jays’ evident interest in Gray.

Could the Jays be looking at starting pitching for this season and beyond? Absolutely. And if they were, it wouldn’t be the first time in the Shapiro-Atkins era that they were looking to deal for a starting pitcher despite not having room for one. They did as much when they flipped Drew Hutchison for Francisco Liriano and a couple of prospects last July. And with both Liriano and Marco Estrada due to hit free agency at season’s end, and nobody in the organization beyond Joe Biagini (who looked a better rotation candidate a few starts ago) to fill in that gap, you understand why they’d see a fit in a player on Gray’s contract (he makes $3.575 million this season and will go through arbitration two more times after this). But because of that contract, Gray won’t come cheap, which is a problem, because he’s maybe kinda bad.

For those who know the name and instantly think, “Sonny Gray — ahhh, yes, a good pitcher!”, let me fill you in on how his last couple seasons have gone.

Over his last 33 starts he’s pitched to a 5.25 ERA, allowing 1.24 home runs per nine innings, striking out an average-ish 20.1% of batters faced, and walking 8.1%. His groundball rate is tasty (54.2%), and his FIP of 4.29 has helped power him to a decent 1.9 WAR, per FanGraphs — though WAR that isn’t FIP-based has liked him a whole lot less: -0.6 by RA9-WAR, and -0.1 by Baseball Reference.

Now, these numbers need to be qualified by the fact that 2016 was a bit of a disaster for Gray, as he battled injury, and landed on the DL a couple times. That WAR figure for BR, for example, includes a -0.5 in 2016, whereas he’s bounced back to a 0.4 so far this year. Which… still isn’t all that great. At least relative to what it’s likely going to cost to get him. But is pretty alright. FanGraphs’ FIP-based number says he’s been worth 1.2 wins this season, which is quite good!

So maybe my calling him “kinda bad” is a stretch. He’s certainly capable of more, too, as he showed in 2014 and 2015. But he’s a guy I’d be wary of. Consider, if you will, his road splits in 2017 so far. In 2015, Gray was just about as good pitching outside of the spacious confines of the Oakland Coliseum, and in 2014 he was even better on the road. That changed during his tough 2016 season, and he hasn’t yet reversed the trend. Gray’s road ERA this season is 4.85, compared to 4.11 at home. Opponents are hitting .274/.320/.470 off him, and he’s allowed 5 home runs in 29.2 innings. His road FIP is 4.32 compared to 3.00 at home.

The sample, obviously, is small. And but for a 7 run disaster in Cleveland, those numbers would quite a bit better. But it’s hard to say precisely what Gray is at this stage, and what he’ll be going forward — which I guess is all the more reason for a team to send their best eyes to take a look.

But obviously that doesn’t mean — OH MY GOD! — the Jays are trying to land Sonny Gray. It’s possible. But more likely it means they’re taking a look at guy who they might want to make a move on if one of their own pitchers goes down, or who it would be good to have some background on for the winter, when it would likely make a little more sense for the Jays to take a run at him.

Due diligence, in other words.

Even more likely, though, is that this doesn’t really tell us anything at all. It’s July. There are scouts for all sorts of teams all over the place, and the fact that ones for certain clubs are watching certain other clubs isn’t all that meaningful. It’s newsworthy — I’m not saying reporters shouldn’t bother telling us these things — but the Jays looking at Jed Lowrie (even though he didn’t actually start on Monday; the scouts didn’t know that when they flew to Oakland, eh?), or a reliever like Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, or — shit — even Liam Hendriks probably makes even more sense. Or all of the above, Gray included.

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Some quick thoughts on those guys…

  • Jed Lowrie: A perfect fit, really, and the guy we ought to be talking about, I think. Makes $6.5 million this year, and has a $6 million option for next year with a $1 million buyout, so you have a chance to keep him around as Devon Travis insurance (and a replacement for free-agent-to-be Darwin Barney — which works because the Jays would still have a backup shortstop in Ryan Goins). Lowrie was bad last year (77 wRC+), but has been good this year (124 wRC+), can handle second base just fine, and has averaged 2.3 WAR for every 150 games played in his career.
  • Ryan Madson: Madson will have a special place in our hearts for giving up that home run to Bautista as José tried to single-handedly beat the Royals in Game Six of the 2015 ALCS — and also for being part of the bullshit dustup in KC earlier that year, in the game egregiously umpired by Randy Wolf’s brother. On the expensive side for Oakland, maybe, at nearly $8 million this year and next — he is their highest paid player after the ghost of Billy Butler, which… holy shit, A’s, you’re a fucking disaster! A reliable right-hander striking out a batter per inning, throwing in the mid-90s, keeping the ball on the ground, and for the most part in the ballpark. Sure!
  • Sean Doolittle: On the hook for $4.38 million next year (with an option year after that), Doolittle has been incredible so far this year, striking out 22 and walking just 2 in 13.2 innings. That’s better than the previous couple seasons, but it’s the same idea: fastball slider with hefty strikeout totals and not many walks to speak of. I’d definitely do it for the right price. Hey, and maybe he can come here and lobby the Jays to get their shit together re: Pride Night — something he and his girlfriend, Eireann Dolan, have been high profile proponents of in Oakland.
  • Liam Hendriks: Look, the Jesse Chavez trade made sense at the time, it just took until he was long gone before we saw first-hand (for the first time in years), how badly needed legit, MLB-calibre starting pitching depth is for a team. And Chavez looked like he could be that at the time! And the Jays thought Aaron Sanchez might wind up in the bullpen again, so they definitely needed more bodies who could start! OKAY???????????? (Hendriks continues to be pretty good.)