One thing that became abundantly apparent during the 2023 season for the Dodgers was the lack of a healthy frontline starter who could pitch effectively throughout the entirety of the season.
As the offseason progresses, the Dodgers have prepared to enter the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes and have been recently been linked to another Japanese free agent in Yoshinobu Yamamoto. There is another free agent starter that the Dodgers shouldn’t overlook if they want to bolster their rotation for the 2024 season and beyond. That name in question is Sonny Gray.
Ever since bouncing around New York and Cincinnati, Gray wrapped up two impressive seasons with the Minnesota Twins, with his 2023 season netting him a runner up finish in AL Cy Young voting.
Here are a few reasons for why the Dodgers should go out and sign Sonny Gray.
Proven ace-quality starter
With the Oakland Athletics trading away most of their postseason roster ahead of the 2015 season, Gray was named as the ace of the rotation in what was the beginning of a rebuild. Even though Oakland was abysmal in 2015, Gray was spectacular, pitching to a 14-7 record with a 2.73 ERA in 31 starts, finishing third in AL Cy Young voting.
While the 2016 season and his stint with the New York Yankees were outlier seasons for Gray, as he posted a combined 4.59 ERA from the 2016-2018 seasons with an ERA+ of 92. When he signed a five-year deal with the Cincinnati Reds, Gray reverted back to his 2015 form, finishing seventh in Cy Young voting in his first year with the Reds, and posting an ERA+ over 112 in each of the three seasons.
Gray was traded to the Minnesota Twins ahead of the 2022 season, and was a main factor for why the Twins won the AL Central division in this year.
In his first All Star season since his first year with the Reds, Gray posted an even 8-8 record with a 2.79 ERA, striking out 183 hitters in 184 innings, allowing just eight home runs all season, accumulating a 154 ERA+ and a career high 5.3 fWAR.
In the postseason, Gray has been a mostly effective starter, pitching to a career 3.26 ERA in October, although inconsistencies have reared their ugly heads, as most recently shown in the Twins’ brief playoff run last month.
Aging like fine wine
When Gray first broke in the major leagues, his repertoire primarily consisted of a 1-2 punch, with his fastball being used at a 48 percent clip and his curveball used at an above 26 percent clip. As the years have progressed, Gray has given his other supplementary pitches more love, as his slider was used over 26 percent of the time, limiting the use of his fastball, while including his cutter and changeup at a seven and six percent clip respectively.
While Gray has never been a hard-throwing pitcher who can strike out well over 200 hitters in a given season, Gray has been extremely effective in limiting hard contact and home runs hit. Gray posted a 0.39 HR/9, the lowest rate of his entire career, with hitters average an exit velocity of 89.1 mph and a launch angle of 9.6 degrees. Although he isn’t inducing ground balls in the same manner he had previously in his career, Gray still finished with a 47.3 percent ground ball rate against hitters.
Gray was also able to bait hitters into swinging outside of the strike zone even further, as he posted a career high in o-swing percentage.
While Gray might not throw the hardest, or strike out the most hitters, he still is one of the most effective starters that are currently on the free agent market. In the 2023 season, Gray ranked within the 99th percentile in pitching run value, 96th percentile in fastball run value, and the 99th percentile in breaking run value.
Mentor for the young starters
The Dodgers have been fortunate to have had one of the greatest starting pitchers of the 21st century in Clayton Kershaw since the 2008 season. Kershaw transitioned from a rookie surrounded by starters such as Brad Penny and Chad Billingsley, to a three-time Cy Young winner, to a grizzled veteran who helped rookies such as Bobby Miller and Ryan Pepiot become more acclimated to the big leagues.
If the Dodgers are unable to bring back Kershaw for the 2024 season, Gray would be a prime candidate to not only take command at the top of the Dodgers’ rotation, but to also help mentor the young arms the Dodgers currently have on their roster.
In his two seasons with Minnesota, Gray was surrounded with other young and up-and-coming starters such as Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober. Gray personally took Ryan under his wing as a mentor, and it resulted in Ryan finishing with an 11-10 record, striking out 197 hitters and walking just 34 in 161 2⁄3 innings pitched.
The Dodgers have several young starters currently projected to be a part of the rotation, including Miller, Pepiot, and Emmet Sheehan. Gray has the capabilities of guiding the young starters under his wing, filling them with the knowledge he has gained through his 11-year career.
If there is one red flag that comes with signing Gray, it would be how he has performed in big market cities.
Bigger market, bigger pressure
Throughout the majority of his career, Gray has enjoyed fruitful seasons playing in small market cities such as Oakland, Cincinnati, and in the twin cities of Minnesota. When he pitched in arguably the biggest sports market city in the United States, New York City, he struggled with the amount of pressure he faced from both the organization and Yankees fans.
Gray turned in a solid second half to the 2017 season with the Yankees, as he finished with 4-7 record with a 3.72 ERA in 11 starts with New York, posting a 122 ERA+. Unfortunately for Gray, 2018 was a nightmarish campaign which ultimately led him to signing elsewhere after the season’s end.
Gray struggled mightily across the board in 2018, finishing with an 11-9 record with a meager 4.90 ERA, eventually being moved to the bullpen near the end of the regular season. Gray was consistently booed after poor starts at Yankee Stadium, and Gray finished his tenure with a horrid 7.71 ERA in home starts. The Yankees organization was not fond of Gray’s high reliance on his fastball and wanted to experiment with him increasing the use of his secondary pitches, leading to him being removed from the rotation altogether.
The Dodgers could desperately use an arm like Gray, but the bright lights of Los Angeles could seem to be too much for Gray if he performs like his 2018 self. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Dodgers need to supplement the front of the rotation, and bringing in a pitcher like Gray— who had a career year and served as a mentor to young pitchers— should be a part of the team’s laundry list of offseason responsibilities.