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Oakland A’s made right call by not overpaying for Sonny Gray

He was an intriguing buy-low, but the price wasn’t low enough.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland A’s are in desperate need of starting pitching this winter, and one of the most interesting names on the market was Sonny Gray. Oakland’s former ace was coming off a disappointing season for the Yankees and had just one year of club control remaining, which made him a shrewd buy-low candidate for a team that believes in his upside.

However, that ship has sailed. Gray has been traded to the Reds, reports Jeff Passan of ESPN. The deal is official, and here’s a roundup of the details. (Before we move on, let me make clear that I have no idea what the A’s might have offered, nor which side stepped away from talks, nor anything else. I only know that they were involved but didn’t end up acquiring the player.)

This feels like a smart move for the Reds. They’re going for it in 2019, somewhat unexpectedly in this supposed age of tanking, and Sonny is yet another upgrade for their win-now roster. By absorbing other teams’ salary dumps they’ve added starters Alex Wood and Tanner Roark, plus outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, all to go with former MVP Joey Votto anchoring an absurdly powerful infield, recently extended stud closer Raisel Iglesias, and one of the best farm systems in the sport which is about to start spitting out elite impact youngsters (like Nick Senzel sometime this summer). And I even left a couple more notables out of that list.

All of that is to say that I love this move for the Reds. They’ve already begun going all-in for 2019 so they can’t stop now, and they have prospect depth to burn toward that goal without truly mortgaging their future. Sonny is a gamble, but he’s an affordable one with obvious high-reward potential. Furthermore, by signing him to an extension as part of the deal, they will also get to keep one of their new veterans past this summer, so this not a pure rental unlike the Roark acquisition and the Dodgers Dump (aka the Kyle Farmer Trade).

On the other hand, I would not have loved the same move for the A’s. They need starters, yes, but they have scant few resources to offer right now. They have a few Top 100 prospects but they’re all needed here in Oakland, and they have prospect depth but almost all of it is coming off bad 2018 performances and needs time to bounce back and recoup value. This is not a good time for the A’s to do a lot of selling from their farm. And even if they did find a match to acquire Sonny, money is tight enough that his $7.5 million salary might be tough to fit into the payroll.

From the Reds’ perspective, the trade appears to include second baseman Shed Long and a 2019 draft pick, regardless of where those assets might end up (it turned out to be a three-team trade). Last summer, Long received an overall 50-grade from MLB Pipeline, which would have put him in the 4-12 range on their A’s list. He currently has a 50-grade from FanGraphs, too. He was a mid-round draft pick out of high school who played his way up the ladder — similar to the path of pre-injury Dustin Fowler, though Fowler was higher-rated when he was traded for Sonny so my intention isn’t to make a literal comp between them. Perhaps this would be like Oakland parting with Sheldon Neuse (plus the Comp Round draft pick). Maybe even pre-2018 Neuse, before his slump last summer.

And who knows! Hindsight may show that Sonny returns to form, and swapping Neuse for him would have been a steal. That is absolutely a possible scenario. But from what we know at this exact moment, I believe the combination of trade cost, salary, and high risk simply wouldn’t have been worth it for Oakland.

Let’s begin with the cost. The A’s already dealt their tradeable draft pick for Jurickson Profar, so really they would have needed to send Neuse plus another prospect — let’s use Jameson Hannah as a placeholder, since he was selected last year just a few spots after Comp Round A. Both of those youngsters will likely make the Top 10 of our CPL in the coming days. (The Reds also got back a low-level pitching lotto ticket, but that’s not something that needs to move the needle in this conversation.)

The A’s would have used two of their 10 best prospects to acquire this new starter, but they’d still have to pay him too. The advantage of trading for a pitcher instead of signing a free agent on the open market is that he should be less expensive, but that’s not the case with Sonny. Even with the projection systems assuming a bit of a bounce-back, his 2019 salary is still more or less in line with his market value. Theoretically, if he was a free agent, he shouldn’t cost much more than he already does — indeed, his 3yr/$30M extension confirms that assumption. You can sign a Sonny-caliber bounce-back for only slightly more than the actual Sonny is being paid, all without giving up any prospects.

So then why is this good for the Reds? Because their urgency is greater due to their previous moves this winter. Both teams are hoping to contend, but the A’s don’t have to this summer — obviously we’d all like them to, but we’re still in bonus territory for now. The rest of the elite core (Luzardo, Puk, Murphy, Barreto, etc.) might still need another year to get established, which would make 2020 the realistic beginning of the true juggernaut. They should still try in 2019 and they clearly are doing so, but these are the opening credits of the contention window rather than the final curtain call. It’s still a time to patiently balance present and future together, just like they did last summer by shrewdly trading for cheap relievers instead of blowing their wad on a splashy panic move.

The Reds are also looking forward to an imminent window that hasn’t fully arrived yet, but unlike the A’s they’ve actively doubled-down on opening it early in 2019. Between the Roark and Farmer trades they’d already taken on around $20 million in extra salary and spent a few more good prospects, all for pure rentals, and there were still holes in the pitching staff to be filled. They simply had to keep the shopping spree going, and sometimes that means paying the premium for the proverbial Real Sonny while he’s available instead of waiting to find out what marginally more efficient deals might be waiting behind Door Number Never. As for the sunk-cost fallacy, that can’t possibly kick in until midseason — i.e., if Cincinnati struggles in the first half of 2019, then don’t keep spending in July just to chase the dragon.

The Reds needed to make a serious move for another affordable starting pitcher, ASAP, and it was worth reaching for every ounce of extra ceiling they could get out of it. The A’s didn’t need to, because they have other potential options — a couple near-ready prospects, some injury recoveries nearing their returns, and their unparalleled ability to spin gold out of the yarn they find on the scrap heap. The Reds need to win now to justify their previous offseason moves; the A’s can miss the playoffs and still have this be a productive, positive season. The Reds’ 25-man Opening Day payroll will be above $100 million for the fifth time in the last seven years; the A’s are thinking about maybe cracking $90 million for the first time ever (but aren’t even there yet) right as their revenue-sharing is drying up.

It comes down to this: I’m happy to pay a Neuse-level price for a new starter, or I’m happy to pay in the neighborhood $7-10 million for a strong buy-low candidate. I’ll even do both for a legit, reliable option! But I won’t do both in exchange for one bounce-back question mark. For Sonny at full price I wouldn’t have gone higher than a 45-grade like Luis Barrera or (at the most) Nick Allen, or possibly a decent-ceiling injury case like Daulton Jefferies. If the Yankees had covered Sonny’s whole salary then maybe I could have been convinced to part with Neuse (or someone else of Shed Long’s caliber), and that’s still only half what Cincy gave up.

I love what the Reds are doing. They’re trying to win at a moment when not enough teams are, and they’re going about it in a particularly creative buy-low fashion rather than just blindly throwing gobs of money at top free agents. Within their context, acquiring Sonny was a wonderful move that could pay huge dividends, even though they overpaid. But it was a move for them to make, not for the A’s.