The epic story of how Sonny Gray became a Red

Former Vanderbilt pitcher Sonny Gray is all smiles again after an unpredictable journey from the New York Yankees to the Cincinnati Reds (photo by Mike Morrow)

It started with a smile for Sonny Gray to be a Yankee.

It was July 31, 2017, when the Yankees announced they had obtained Gray, sending outfielder Dustin Fowler, pitcher James Kaprielian and outfielder Jorge Mateo to the Oakland Athletics for the former Smyna High School and Vanderbilt University pitcher, along with international signing pool money.

“He’s really good,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said in a press conference that day. “We’ve faced him a number of times. We know the type of stuff he has. We improved ourselves today.”

When Gray arrived in the Bronx, he told the media, “I couldn’t be happier with the way it all played out. I couldn’t be happier than to be here today.”

He had been the subject of trade talk, and as the trade deadline neared he was finally informed by Oakland A’s vice president Billy Beane he was a Yankee.

“When I talked to Billy Monday morning, and he told me that it finally went through and I was going to be a Yankee, I just had a big smile on my face, and I was ready to get here,” Gray said.

That was then.

What followed was a confusing, sometimes painful, often bewildering storyline for a pitcher who had been so competitive, so driven, so likeable. Gray somehow managed to get mired in mind games, losing command of his ability, losing the fan base in New York, and in the end, losing the confidence of the Yankee front office.

There would be no Yankee road to stardom for Gray. The frustration got to the point general manager Brian Cashman said for all the world to hear that the Yankees had to figure out a way to trade Gray. It was just that obvious.

Through news accounts, including press conferences and clubhouse interviews posted by the YES Network, ESPN, wire reports, and media outlets in New York, Cincinnati and Nashville, the puzzling story of Gray’s days in Gotham can be gathered. Even now, it’s a story of frustration, incomprehension and lacking in explanation.

It began well enough for Gray. Once in New York, he started 11 games for the Yankees for the remainder of the 2017 season. He was given the ball for Game 1 of the American League Division Series against Cleveland, taking the loss in a 4-0 outcome. He started Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros, allowing one hit and two runs in five innings, getting no decision in a game the Yankees eventually won 6-4. He finished that season with a 10-12 record, 4-7 with the Yankees.

It was supposed to be a good year in 2018, a member of the starting rotation on a club heralded for rising young stars like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, with the added power of newly acquired Giancarlo Stanton, and with a new manager, Aaron Boone. In spring training, some of the Yankee players had T-shirts that said, “It’s Always Sonny in the Bronx.”

Yankees Manager Aaron Boone, left, with Gray (photo by Mike Morrow)

But even as early as April, there began to be hints of trouble. After an 8-5 loss to Toronto in which Gray gave up five runs in less than four innings without getting a decision, Boone talked about what was beginning to look obvious. Maybe Gray was overthinking.

“One of the things we’ve talked about over and over with Sonny is, because he is so talented, because he is so good, is trying to simplify things and really just trusting his stuff and not over-analyzing all the time to be so perfect,” Boone said. “Sometimes trying to be perfect gets him into a little bit of trouble. If he really can trust his stuff he can be an elite-level pitcher.”

One point of debate had become who was catching Gray, Sanchez or Austin Romine, and whether it mattered to Gray’s performance. Another little problem was creeping into the Yankees’ consciousness. The Boston Red Sox.

“I know they win every day, by a lot,” Boone said. “They’re playing great. We’re trying to get our own house in order…It’s hard not to notice they’re running through the league pretty well right now.”

In New York, even in April, such things matter.

On May 11, Gray faced his former team, the Athletics, for the first time. He had been with the A’s since they drafted him out of Vanderbilt in the first round in 2011, the 18th pick overall, making his major league debut in 2013. He had made two post-season appearances with the A’s and was a fan favorite. Gray had actually begun to show some confidence. But the Yankees lost 10-5 that day, with Gray working five innings, giving up five runs on nine hits and seeing his record for the season drop to 2-3.

He would look good at times. At others, he looked lost. Analysts were beginning to latch on to the sense that Gray was thinking too much, that he should let his catcher, specifically Romine, call the game.

Different on the road

Gray went out and beat Baltimore at Camden Yards, working six innings, allowing only one run on four hits, his fourth win of the season. He gave up a home run to Manny Machado, but it was the only homer Gray had allowed all season on the road.

The road. There was the developing storyline, one thing in New York, another thing on the road.

In Toronto, Gray worked eight innings in a 3-0 victory, his longest scoreless start since he threw a complete-game shutout on July 28, 2015 in Dodger Stadium.

The Yankees were surging. By June 30, they were 53-26 (.671), the best record in the major leagues, ahead of Boston at 55-28 (.663).

But on June 30, Gray took his 5-5 record to the mound in Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox and got clobbered. Rafael Devers hit a first-inning grand slam, and Gray didn’t make it through the third inning. He gave up six runs in an 11-0 embarrassment, and Gray looked dazed after the game.

“I put us in too big of a hole to climb out of,” he said.

He was asked why he had been so inconsistent.

“I don’t know. It’s been too up-and-down, that’s for sure. That was embarrassing for me and I think to everybody in here,” he said.

He was asked if there was anything to his struggles at home specifically.

“I wish I knew,” he said. “I’m well aware of the way I’ve struggled here. I just wish I knew. That was embarrassing from the first inning on.”

He was asked if there was more pressure pitching in Yankee Stadium.

“I don’t know if pressure is the right word,” he said. “You expect to come out and perform and make it fun. The way I’ve thrown the ball I don’t think it’s been fun. I feel like we’re the best team in baseball four out of five days. And then I come out and do that. It just sucks.”

So there it was. Gray proclaimed the Yankees were baseball’s best team except when he pitched. And, oh yes, the Yankee fans were unhappy.

“I get it. If I was out there I probably would have booed me louder,” Gray said.

For all the complexity of what was happening to Gray, the dreaded declaration was now unfolding. Sonny Gray was becoming the player that no player ever wants to be. He was becoming one of those players who simply Can’t. Play. In. New. York. It had become so bad, Gray was being mentioned in the same breath as Ed Whitson, the heretofore Exhibit A of the pitcher who couldn’t handle the pressure of pitching in New York.

Whitson was from Tennessee. He hailed from Unicoi County High School in Erwin in the upper easern part of the state. His relationship with the fans in New York took a toll on him. Tom Verducci, in a story about Gray for Sports Illustrated, drew the comparison to Whitson, whom Verducci called “the preeminent example of when a player can’t pitch in New York.” Verducci recalled how Whitson’s agent said he was in a “living nightmare,” dreaded going to the ballpark and was booed entering and leaving the stadium. Verducci said Whitson had been “anxious and fearful.”

Gray never appeared fearful. He never appeared intimidated by the fans. He just looked, well, not like himself. Gray’s experience seemed nothing like Whitson’s ordeal. But the similarity of struggling in Yankee Stadium was bringing up Whitson’s time in New York. The irony was that in Whitson’s two years with the Yankees, 1985-86, he had a winning record, 15-10.

The Yankees went to Baltimore on July 11, and Gray, stellar on the road again, threw six shutout innings in a 9-0 victory. His ERA on the road was 3.62. His ERA at home was 7.62. Reports emerged that the Yankees were interested in trading Gray, to a small-market team.

To the bullpen

On August 1, Gray was shelled, at home, by the Orioles. On August 2, Boone announced that Lance Lynn would take Gray’s place in the starting rotation. Gray was headed to the bullpen.

Boone and pitching coach Larry Rothschild met with Gray in Boston, where the Yankees were opening the next series, and broke the news to him. Gray was professional, said he would do what they asked, that he understood the situation, that he would prefer to start, that he would do whatever is necessary to help the team win.

“I thought he had turned the corner for us,” Cashman said on August 2, noting Gray’s 3-1 record in July. “We hit the wall yesterday. He’s been fighting. He obviously wants to do well. But the results have not been, obviously, Sonny Gray-like, pre-Yankee, and so we just haven’t been able to get out of him in this environment what he’s capable of, and that’s something I would be responsible for because I’m the one who imported him here. We just have to make an adjustment here.

“We certainly expected better, and he did too. We thought he had turned the corner, until yesterday.”

Cashman was asked by radio talk show host Michael Kay, the Yankees broadcaster, about reports that teams expressed interest in trading for Gray before the trade deadline. Cashman said the offers weren’t good enough. He said teams saw that the Yankees had someone who was “struggling in this environment in New York, which has happened and they’ve gone on elsewhere to pitch effectively or return to form. We understand and see that, time and time again.”

Kay noted that he himself had been part of a radio broadcast team, with Boone in fact, when Gray pitched a playoff game for the A’s against the Tigers and watched Gray go “pitch for pitch with Justin Verlander” and that Gray looked “electric.”

Kay asked Cashman, “Is he Ed Whitson?” He then asked, “Why has it gone wrong?”

Cashman replied, “That’s obviously the head scratcher.

“Definitely I think this environment has not brought out the best in him.”

The environment was New York. Gray was looking like Ed Whitson. Gray was going to the bullpen.

Yet his statistics in four relief appearances were 1-0 with a 2.89 ERA. And on August 25, Gray made another start, in the second game of a double header, and beat Baltimore, on the road, with six scoreless innings, improving his record to 10-8.

Boone was beaming.

“That’s a peek right there of what he can do when he’s at his best,” Boone said. “I know he’s been through so much this year, and sometime adversity, it’s not the worst thing to go through and you learn a lot of things about yourself. As I’ve always said, he’s a guy that is in the prime of his career and has the equipment to be a really good pitcher, and we’ve seen glimpses of it, and we saw glimpses of it tonight.”

But there weren’t enough glimpses. Gray finished the season with a 6.98 ERA at home, 3.17 on the road. The Yankees finished 100-62 and won a wild card game before being eliminated by the Red Sox in the playoffs. Gray wasn’t in the playoffs. The Yankees left him off the playoff roster.

In the post-season press conference, Cashman said of Gray’s future, “I think we’ll enter the winter, unfortunately, open-minded to a relocation.”
Gray was on the trading block.

There were ironies. Gray finished the season with an 11-9 record, which made him the third winningest pitcher the Yankees had in 2018, behind only Luis Severino with 19 wins and Masahiro Tanaka with 12. Gray was also the losingest. Severino lost eight games, C.C. Sabathia seven. Sanchez, the heralded catcher, had an atrocious batting average of .186 and embarrassingly led the league in passed balls with 18. No one of sound mind was suggesting Sanchez should be traded. Everyone seemed to be suggesting Gray should be traded.

Cashman was repeatedly complimentary toward Gray regarding his talent and attitude. But he noted, “New York doesn’t bring the best out of him.”

Other teams interested

As early as mid-November, the Cincinnati Reds were mentioned as a potential trading partner for Gray, from a report by John Heyman of Fancred. The fact that the Reds had hired pitching coach Derek Johnson, who had worked with Gray at Vanderbilt, fueled the discussion. The Milwaukee Brewers were also reported to be interested in Gray.

Before the month was over, the Yankees traded for pitcher James Paxton of the Seattle Mariners, giving up three prospects, former Tullahoma High School left-hander Justus Sheffield among them.

Gray continued to be the subject of trade talks at the winter meetings in December in Las Vegas. Other teams were interested in him.

“They know the talent is still there. His issues weren’t injury related,” Cashman said. “Once we feel like we’re in a sweet spot, we’ll make a move on it. We haven’t gotten there yet. He’s still here. He’s still with us. That won’t change until we get what we feel is necessary.”

Among the executives Cashman was talking to in Las Vegas at the time was Reds President Dick Williams, who was interested in Gray.

But the new year arrived and Gray was still a Yankee.

Trade reports were rampant. In a bit of forshadowing, Jon Morosi of MLB Network reported that the Reds were interested in obtaining a pitcher with multiple years of control. Morosi reported that signing free agent Dallas Keuchel was a more likely scenario for the Reds. The Cincinnati Enquirer noted that Heyman had reported in November the Reds were very interested in Keuchel, the former Cy Young Award winner with Houston.

In what became a quiet prelude of things to come, on January 11, the Yankees and Gray agreed on a one-year $7.5 million contract that avoided salary arbitration.

Heyman also reported in January that the San Francisco Giants and the A’s were interested in Gray. This created buzz in the Bay Area where, with Oakland, Gray had been an All-Star in 2015 and finished third that year in Cy Young Award voting, behind Keuchel and another former Vanderbilt pitcher, David Price.

On January 17, Gray was the speaker at a baseball banquet in Nashville. By now, the trade speculation involved six teams, the Reds, Padres, Brewers, A’s, Braves and Mariners, according to Heyman. The interest of other teams had to have underscored in Cashman’s mind his own observation that Gray still had the ability to pitch well, somewhere, just not in Yankee Stadium. Teams wanted Gray.

Mike Organ of The Tennessean in Nashville asked Gray at the banquet about all the trade talk.

Gray replied, “Ultimately, you want to play somewhere where you’re wanted.”

He said if he were to stay in New York he would do everything to improve and help the Yankees.

But Gray said he had not been in contact with the Yankees at all during the off-season. He said he and Cashman had had a couple of conversations during the season but that he had had no contact with the Yankees since the Yankees’ last game.

“I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone. It’s kind of been an up-and-down experience for me,” Gray said. “I’ve loved my time there. I love the guys. It was obviously a difficult season this past year, starting and then going to the bullpen, not pitching as much. But I mean, I won 11 games last year.”

He explained that he had been working out at Vanderbilt, throwing bullpen sessions. Vanderbilt is known for professional players showing up in the offseason to get some work in. Gray noted his strong relationship with Tim Corbin, the Vanderbilt head coach, whom he called a “father figure,” which is notable because Gray’s father, Jesse, had been killed in an automobile crash when Sonny was 14.

The Reds’ talks with the Yankees were serious. Part of the appeal of Gray to the Reds was the fact he had a 53-percent ground ball rate in his career, an important factor for a pitcher in Cincinnati’s home run haven Great American Ball Park.

Another key factor was that the Reds had named Johnson their pitching coach under new manager David Bell. Johnson had been Gray’s pitching coach at Vanderbilt.

The Nashville banquet was on a Wednesday. That Friday, the Yankees and Reds had an agreement for sending Gray to Cincinnati. But it came with strings attached. The Reds were not interested in having Gray, 29, for only a short period of time. Gray would be eligible for free agency at the end of the 2019 season. The Reds wanted a contract extension before they made the deal.

Cashman contacted Gray and told him there was a deal but that the team he was talking to wanted a contract extension. Gray wanted to know who the team was. Gray said he was willing to do the extension, although he didn’t know if it was going to happen. The next day, Cashman called to say the deal was made with the Reds and that now Gray had 72 hours to negotiate a contract extension. The trade depended upon it. Gray called his agent, Bo McKinnis.

Extension makes the deal

McKinnis is based in Nashville. Like Gray, he attended Vanderbilt, having been a student-manager for the baseball team at Mississippi State before going to graduate school at Vanderbilt’s Owen School of Management. He has represented more than 100 big-league players. At one time, McKinnis was the only agent to represent both the National League and American League Cy Young award winners at the same time, Price with Tampa Bay and the Mets’ R.A. Dickey, who had attended Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville and the University of Tennessee. Now, McKinnis was working on a deal for another one of his Nashville clients, Gray.

Meanwhile, Gray’s relationship with Johnson, the pitching coach, came into play. They talked about the move. Johnson spoke well of the Reds. While the club was aware of the relationship between Johnson and Gray, that had occurred several years before, and the Reds had more recent factors to consider. But they came to the broadly held conclusion that Gray was still the quality pitcher everyone thought.

Nick Krall, the Reds general manager, and McKinnis talked throughout the weekend on the deal.

Now it was Sunday morning. Gray had to get a physical examination done for the deal to be done. Gray and his wife had invited people over for grilling out and watching the NFL conference championship games. He couldn’t tell anyone about what was in the works with the Reds.
In his own words, Gray went “MIA,” missing in action. His Sunday visitors didn’t know he was literally on a plane to Arizona.

Gray arrived in Goodyear, Ariz., where the Reds train each spring. He got his physical exam done on Monday while McKinnis negotiated with the Reds. Reds President Dick Williams flew to Arizona on Monday morning and visited with Gray while, in Williams’ words, McKinnis and Krall were “beating each other up.” Williams and Gray talked and got to know each other before the deal was done.

McKinnis and Krall worked out the numbers. On Monday, January 21, Gray agreed to a three-year extension at $30.5 million, with a $12 million club option for 2023, according to Jeff Passan of ESPN.com. With the $7.5 million for 2019, that would top out at five years and $50 million. Ken Rosenthal of the online publication The Athletic tweeted that all the salaries could grow based on certain escalators and that another $500,000 was possible, linked to the number of innings pitched each year.

That day, the Reds and Yankees announced the deal, sending Gray and left-hander Reiver Sanmartin to the Reds for second-base prospect Shed Long and a high draft pick. The Yankees then turned around and sent Long to the Seattle Mariners for outfielder Josh Stowers.

“It was nuts. I’m not going to lie. It was crazy,” Gray said of the chain of events, talking to MLB Network on Thursday, January 24. Gray was asked why he agreed to the extension, as opposed to waiting and becoming a free agent.

“It just felt right,” he said. “It was just something I went over. I talked to my family a lot about it. It was a decision we ultimately made. I’m excited to be there and excited to get started.”

He was asked what his approach would be now.

“It’s just don’t worry about results. Don’t worry about outcome,” he said. “Don’t worry about anything, and just attack the mitt and put hitters on the defensive. That’s something I’ve always done so well.”

An Associated Press account of the trade quoted Johnson.

“It’s a guy who’s really talented and a guy who I think’s right in the middle of his prime and also a hungry guy,” Johnson said. “I think that’s the thing that we’re all counting on. I know what kind of competitor Sonny is, and I know that last year didn’t sit well with him at all, and he’s going to be out to try to prove something not only to other people but obviously to himself, as well.”

Gray became part of an off-season where the Reds acquired pitcher Tanner Roark from the Washington Nationals then pitcher Alex Wood, outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, along with catcher Kyle Farmer from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“It’s the best rotation we’ve had in five years,” Krall said, according to the Associated Press. “It makes you feel better about where you are.”
For Williams, the long-term deal was key.

“We always wanted to add three starters if we could do so economically,” he said. “We didn’t want to be in a position where all three starters would be becoming free agents next year.”

A day after the trade, Gray told Lance McAlister of WLW radio in Cincinnati, “I could not be happier with the result. I’m just jacked. I’m jacked up.”

The Reds connections are plentiful. Another former Vanderbilt player, catcher Curt Casali, is on the Reds roster, and he and Gray worked out together at Vanderbilt over the winter.

Gray talked about how he met Johnson when Gray was a 14-year-old, 140-pound freshman in high school with bleach bond hair, watching bullpen sessions at Vanderbilt, saying to Johnson, “I can throw 90. How hard does this guy throw?”

Gray said it had come full circle for him as a father of two boys, one a 4-year-old, the other a 4-month-old, and he recalled how his father would throw the baseball with him in the back yard while wearing a Reds cap.

“It’s a cool feeling,” Gray said. “I’m getting goose bumps now.”

And from an AP account of Gray’s reaction, he spoke of pitching for his father’s favorite team, saying, “So I know he’s looking down with the biggest smile on his face right now.”

This story was compiled from various media reports, notably videos of press conferences and interviews posted on the YES Network, along with reports from ESPN.com, MLB.com, radio station WLW in Cincinnati and other news reports from New York, Cincinnati and Nashville.