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  • All Eyes on Free Agent Target Jon Gray


    Nick Nelson

    This past weekend, several of the top free agent starters received qualifying offers, meaning they'll either come off the market by accepting, or inherit a draft-pick attachment by rejecting. 

    One name conspicuously absent from the list: Jon Gray, who is now available in free agency with no strings attached. He'll have plenty of suitors, and the Twins are sure to be among them.

    Image courtesy of Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

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    In an alternate universe, the Twins very well could've been matched with Gray from the very start. They held the No. 4 overall pick in the 2013 draft, with a clear need for pitching, and he was considered the top college arm after Stanford's Mark Appel, who went to Houston first overall. The Twins had deeply scouted their eventual pick, prep pitcher Kohl Stewart (who turned out to be a disastrous bust). But if the University of Oklahoma star Gray hadn't been claimed one spot ahead of Minnesota, by the Rockies at No. 3, would the Twins have opted for the far less risky commodity?

    Alas, we will never know. But now the Twins have an opportunity to reunite with the pitcher they just missed. As for Gray, his journey with the Rockies could best be described as ... rocky. 

    Jon Gray's Tenure in Colorado

    The top draft pick established himself accordingly in the minors, and emerged as a consensus top-20 prospect after dominating the low minors. He moved quickly to the majors and finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting.

    His performance in that rookie season of 2016 – 168 IP, 4.61 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 9.9 K/9, 1.26 WHIP – would basically set the benchmark for Gray. He was more or less that same guy throughout his time with the Rockies, with some high points and low points mixed in. He completes his run in Colorado with a 4.59 ERA and 3.91 FIP, displaying the gap one expects from a pitcher in Coors.

    While we all know the mile-high environment suppresses pitching results, Gray has failed to break through on any merit. He's never posted an ERA lower than 3.67, and he has a 4.19 FIP over the past four seasons. His year-to-year performance places him firmly in the "mid-rotation starter" category, which helps explain why Colorado didn't want to commit for $18.4 million. Gray likely would've accepted the QO, if offered. Instead he'll turn to the open market for a longer-term deal.

    The Rockies reportedly reached out with an extension offer before season's end, but were rejected. Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post posited that Gray "is likely seeking a three- or four-year deal at about $9 million-$10 million a season." That's right in Minnesota's wheelhouse, for their second rotation addition if not their first. Is Gray worthy of an intense pursuit?

    3 Things to Know About Jon Gray

    He's durable. But not super durable.

    Gray has mostly avoided arm injuries throughout his professional career, despite hurling a fastball in the mid-90s plus a consistently heavy dose of sliders. He did miss a bit of time with an elbow flexor injury this past June, though he returned without issue. 

    Gray ended up throwing 149 innings this year, which is almost exactly what he averaged from 2016 through 2019. He's never thrown more than 173 innings in a season but he's also never missed more than a handful of starts in a season, save for 2017 when a stress fracture in his foot cost him two months. 

    In Colorado, Gray has mostly been treated as a five-and-fly type, pitching five or at most six innings before giving way to the bullpen. Some might say that fits the Twins' style of management. I'd argue its more reflective of the sport's evolution at large, but alas, it adds to the sense of alignment.

    He gets strikeouts, but doesn't make people chase.

    Gray has averaged more than a strikeout per inning in every full season he's pitched, including 2021 where he averaged 9.5 K/9. However, he did so this year with a chase rate ranking in the 5th percentile of all major-leaguers. O-Swing % represents the percentage of pitches where a batter swings outside the zone, and in this category Gray's 25.8% mark in 2021 would've ranked 29th out of 35 pitchers who pitched for the Twins this year, surpassing only Beau Burrows, Shaun Anderson, Kyle Barraclough, Andrew Albers, Edgar Garcia, Brandon Waddell and Willians Astudillo. Yeesh.

    The latest season was no outlier. Since his debut in 2015, Gray ranks 54th out of 54 pitchers (800+ IP) in chase rate. 

    It's impressive Gray has been able to find relative success despite this critical shortcoming. But it also speaks to a potential opportunity to level-up. If Gray could make more batters chase out of the zone, he'd likely cut down on his mediocre walk rates, increase his already-good strikeout rates, and unlock greater overall efficiency.

    Undoubtedly his coaches in Colorado were working on this fairly obvious fix, but maybe a new voice helps him turn a corner — perhaps via increased usage of the changeup and curveball, which have generated his highest chase rates this year despite being his least-used offerings.

    grayOOZstatcast.JPG

    He's one of the youngest starting pitchers in free agency.

    By nature, free agents tend to be past 30, and sometimes well past 30, because it takes six-plus years to reach that point. But Gray's reaching the open market on the early side, as a collegiate top draft pick who was fast-tracked to the big leagues by age 23. He just wrapped up his age-29 season and turned 30 a few days ago on November 5th. 

    Given his relative lack of career earnings (he's banked about $16 million total up to this point), Gray may value the security of a longer-term deal at a reasonable sum, which holds appeal for teams given his age. In this respect, and also because he won't cost a draft pick to sign, Gray feels like a good fit for the Twins with their stuck-in-between status of contending and rebuilding. He could be a real difference-maker in 2022 but also '23 and '24. 

    Jon Gray and the Twins

    An important thing to recognize about free agency is that you're not paying for what someone has done, you're paying for what they are going to do. No one can predict the future, obviously, but there are numerous indicators and signs. It's foolish to treat history as the only impactful one.

    Teams (including the Twins) didn't fixate on the past when they went hard after Zack Wheeler a couple years ago in free agency, despite his unspectacular career numbers (3.77 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 1.29 WHIP, 100 ERA+). The Phillies ultimately won out, signing Wheeler to a $118 million contract, and they've been richly rewarded as he's been one of the best pitchers in baseball since, posting a 2.82 ERA in two ultra-durable seasons. 

    Now, I'm not saying Gray is anywhere close to the same as Wheeler, whose flaws were less readily apparent and his upside more so. Because of that, he won't get a deal anywhere near that same range. But there will be plenty of teams intrigued by his seemingly unscratched potential, and it would be no surprise if a modest bidding war breaks out. In the Offseason Handbook we projected a $10 million yearly salary, figuring he'd land a deal in the 3 years, $30M range, which jibes with what the Denver Post projected he would get. However, it would come as no shock at all if his eventual price tag climbs considerably higher. Ricky Nolasco territory (4 years, $49M) seems achievable.

    Would the Twins go that high? Should they? Are they even a destination of interest to Gray, whose own preferences will ultimately play a pivotal role in where he lands?

    It's hard to say. But what's clear is that Twins fans should be paying close attention to him, because there's little doubt Minnesota will be in the running. And despite expectations that this offseason would crawl its way to an early stop with a lockout looming, LA's signing of Andrew Heaney on Monday throws this presumption into doubt. 

    Teams are out here looking to score early values on the market. If the Twins are serious about Gray, they'd be wise to make their intentions known quickly (if they haven't already).

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    Honestly, the idea that we will sign two top free agent pitchers is floated every single year in memory and its just a fantasy.    Resign Pineda and sign a guy like Gray and a good bullpen arm and I will be more than satisfied because it is more than what history and probability says we will end up doing.   

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    Gray is an interesting pitcher. I think he's a very reasonable target for the Twins, and I think there will be a lot of teams interested but those teams will also have questions as to where the upside is.

    I looked at his home-away splits to see if I could see a "mile-high" effect baked in there, and it's a little hard to find on the stats, because he was pretty even. Could there be that opportunity to tune him up a bit more by using the curve? It would be interesting to know if he threw it less overall because it wasn't as effective a pitch at altitude for him and he really couldn't adjust to only throwing it on the road. (I could see it working that way because if he didn't throw the curve much at home he might have trouble getting a good feel for it to throw it on the road too?) It's an interesting question.

    I'd say the floor is pretty solid for Gray: he's going to be a solid starter for you who probably won't go real deep into games, but should be effective the first two times through the lineup. The question is whether a new environment and maybe a few tweaks to pitch mix or delivery can unlock something additional for him.

    He definitely looks more like Jake Odorizzi than Zack Wheeler to me, but that's not necessarily bad: if you get a guy who is serviceable in a down year and borderline all-star in a good year...that's pretty good? And that's kind of who Jon Gray has been/could be.

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    Gray's history suggest a ceiling as a #3 starter.  Pineda would fit that slot as well, has better stats and would likely sign  a 1-2 year contract.  Gray wouldn't move the needle much.  Twins still need two top-of-rotation guys.  Save their bullets for those two, not on Gray.

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    If Gray is the big pitching acquisition, needle does not move much.

    If he is the second or third SP added, sure.

    GIven a choice between Gray at $10M x 3 or 4 seasons and Pineda at $7-8M x2, prefer Big Mike.  Happy to have both if there is someone else ahead of them.

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    58 minutes ago, bean5302 said:

    What is this absolute obsession on Twins Daily with a medicore starter? 

    I don't see any obsession. There are not any 29 year old healthy stud SPs out there.  Robbie Ray has not exactly been a steady performer but I guess he might qualify.  Stroman is steady but not spectacular.  I guess Gausman would be the other guy we would want long term.  One of those three would be nice.  Now we just have to beat out Houston with $88M coming off the books, the Dodgers with about the same coming off not counting their deadline acquisitions, the Mets with $75M coming off, and the Mariners and Indians who have extremely low payrolls, and of course the Yankees.

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    1 hour ago, bean5302 said:

    What is this absolute obsession on Twins Daily with a medicore starter? 

    Probably because that's what the Twins do in free agency. Sign #3 starting pitchers and hope they work out. Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana, Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, Nick Blackburn, J.A. Happ, Michael Pineda, the list goes on. 

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    35 minutes ago, mikelink45 said:

    My first response is sign him.

    My second response is - who has left Colorado and done well elsewhere?

     

    IDK. I guess all star seasons and a gold gloves doesn’t count for much. 

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    3 hours ago, Major League Ready said:

    I don't see any obsession. There are not any 29 year old healthy stud SPs out there.  Robbie Ray has not exactly been a steady performer but I guess he might qualify.  Stroman is steady but not spectacular.  I guess Gausman would be the other guy we would want long term.  One of those three would be nice.  Now we just have to beat out Houston with $88M coming off the books, the Dodgers with about the same coming off not counting their deadline acquisitions, the Mets with $75M coming off, and the Mariners and Indians who have extremely low payrolls, and of course the Yankees.

    It feels like there have been about 5 articles about the guy... He doesn't make a significant improvement to the Twins. They have the back end of the rotation covered already. I guess people are excited at the potential of winning 75 games instead of 73 this year?

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    54 minutes ago, bean5302 said:

    It feels like there have been about 5 articles about the guy... He doesn't make a significant improvement to the Twins. They have the back end of the rotation covered already. I guess people are excited at the potential of winning 75 games instead of 73 this year?

    You make a good point.  I am in the small minority that would approach 2022 as a retool year.  It's just not realistic to believe they can put together a contender over the winter unless they really gut the farm system and even then it would be questionable.  I am of the belief they will be considerably better positioned in 2023 with such an approach.  That's an unpopular view and who knows how it plays out.  I would be real happy if the Pohlads threw money at the problem but that's not realistic.

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    In my 2022 prospectus I had the Twins signjng at $14M as the #2 SP. Maybe I'm buying in to hype, but I'm very intrigued by him. While not a STUD by any definition, he's been a solid mid rotation starter. Hes at the perfect age, IMO, where experience/knowledge really sets in. And with a change of scenery, a different voice, (Johnson), and a change in his mix I see the potential for a step up. The velocity is there and so are the K's. If his curve and change really do provide solid chase numbers, I see something that can be unlocked yet. Think Ray last year with Toronto, though I'm certainly not saying he has THAT high of a ceiling. But I think there's something there.

    That's why I said $14M per and get it done. (His salary also makes him potentially attractive as a trade option down the road if a couple young guys really step up). But if projections really have him at $8-10M per....which I think might be low...then I'd jump at the chance for $12M per at 3-4yrs every day and twice on Sunday.

    I don't think looking at Gray is targeting low at all. I believe, first and foremost, the Twins commit to someone like Stroman for $20-22M for someone to lead the staff. But after that, IMO, Gray is a perfect "buy at lower value" still with some upside, that could pay off nicely. And I think that's the kind of pitcher they should be targeting. 

    I think he's a logical step up from Pineda, who I have for about $8M as the #3 in the rotation.

     

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    5 hours ago, dex8425 said:

    Probably because that's what the Twins do in free agency. Sign #3 starting pitchers and hope they work out. Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana, Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, Nick Blackburn, J.A. Happ, Michael Pineda, the list goes on. 

    Not debating your opinion or stepping on your post, just want to keep things real is all.

    Blackburn was a mid to end of the rotation starter, but a prospect, not a FA. Pineda has actually been very solid when he's been out there. Yes, there was the suspension issue and a couple injuries, but he's been a quality mid rotation option...sometimes flashing....when he's been out there. While not a true #1, the Santana signing turned out just fine until his finger injury blew up. Hughes found a different level after coming to the Twins and pitched about as close as you can towards being considered an ACE. He never should have received an immediate re-structure after that one year. But we can't forget to remember how good he was before his shoulder suddenly went out.

    Just...perspective and remembrance is all I'm saying.

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    3 hours ago, Major League Ready said:

    gut the farm system

    What specifically (names of players) does this mean? A number of comments have stated a fear of losing prospects and the responses are always, without exception, quite vague. A very specific list of names is needed to support this point.  I may agree if I knew what someone meant by "gut the farm system" or even an example of some sort, but really I am interested in exactly what Twins prospects or players are untouchable or some semblance of what that means for my understanding of the thought process of those who are fearful of throwing the future away by trading prospects or young rostered players. This would help me understand those who are reticent for change.

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    7 hours ago, TheLeviathan said:

    Jon Gray is not a "back end" starter by any rational use of that term.  

    If someone of Gray's quality (and moderate upside) isn't good enough to be appealing I don't know what you think is reasonably possible to do.  

    You are expecting people to be rational here? Dang, you seemed so much smarter than that

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    Bottom line is, the Twins need arms. Sign Pineda and Gray, both are reasonable money and steady production with some upside. Even if they go hard after one of the top line guys history has shown that it's highly unlikely that they would choose Minnesota if money is equal. 

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    I wonder if the low o-swing% has to do with pitching in Colorado. 

    I have played baseball at both 6000ft (Albuquerque) and at 900ish ft (Minny & Phoenix) elevation. When at higher elevation, pitchers tended to try to beat me with gas. They filled the strike zone. Breaking pitches were thrown infrequently, and if in the zone, tended to get punished. 

    Now I play at about 1000ft after five years at elevation. The adjustment to breaking pitches at lower elevation has taken longer than expected. Guys throw so much more junk here and nibble, constantly trying to get you chase. That was a new experience for me after so many years in ABQ.

    I would suspect Gray could find that skill getting out of Colorado. It's much easier to get guys to chase when you can throw a pitch with 10 inches of movement instead of 7...and you also don't risk throwing cement mixers as often.

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    7 hours ago, mikelink45 said:

    When did Arenado last pitch?

    You did not say pitcher. . Good pitchers and the Rockies have not been linked very often so the sample size is likely what you can count on one hand.. How about the onus on you to name a few pitchers who provided 3 war that left the Rockies as free agents

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    2 hours ago, old nurse said:

    You did not say pitcher. . Good pitchers and the Rockies have not been linked very often so the sample size is likely what you can count on one hand.. How about the onus on you to name a few pitchers who provided 3 war that left the Rockies as free agents

    You are right - I did not say pitchers, I made an assumption (a bad thing to do) that the post was about pitching.  but since the gauntlet is tossed I will say Jeff Francis - he looked so promising.  Of Ubaldo Jiminez who has a WAR of 7.5 in 2010.  

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    1 hour ago, mikelink45 said:

    You are right - I did not say pitchers, I made an assumption (a bad thing to do) that the post was about pitching.  but since the gauntlet is tossed I will say Jeff Francis - he looked so promising.  Of Ubaldo Jiminez who has a WAR of 7.5 in 2010.  

    Francis had his shoulder blow out long before he left Colorado. He was not the same pitcher after the injury  That is a far different scenario than Gray. Jimenez was traded from Colorado hence did not leave as a free agent. Service time wise he was nowhere close to being a free agent when traded. Again, no similarity to Gray

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    10 hours ago, old nurse said:

    Francis had his shoulder blow out long before he left Colorado. He was not the same pitcher after the injury  That is a far different scenario than Gray. Jimenez was traded from Colorado hence did not leave as a free agent. Service time wise he was nowhere close to being a free agent when traded. Again, no similarity to Gray

    Okay - I will give up - but I still worry about Colorado pitchers.  I think if they have one that works in the altitude they should hold on to him.

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    6 hours ago, mikelink45 said:

    Okay - I will give up - but I still worry about Colorado pitchers.  I think if they have one that works in the altitude they should hold on to him.

    Worrying about Colorado players is not unreasonable.  However, Gray has a history that ranges from Average Pitcher to Stone Cold Bad Ass Pitcher.  He is a bit erratic on that spectrum, but I don't see a single starter on the FA list with as much potential to make his contract look like a steal as he does.

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    On 11/9/2021 at 8:34 PM, DocBauer said:

    Not debating your opinion or stepping on your post, just want to keep things real is all.

    Blackburn was a mid to end of the rotation starter, but a prospect, not a FA. Pineda has actually been very solid when he's been out there. Yes, there was the suspension issue and a couple injuries, but he's been a quality mid rotation option...sometimes flashing....when he's been out there. While not a true #1, the Santana signing turned out just fine until his finger injury blew up. Hughes found a different level after coming to the Twins and pitched about as close as you can towards being considered an ACE. He never should have received an immediate re-structure after that one year. But we can't forget to remember how good he was before his shoulder suddenly went out.

    Just...perspective and remembrance is all I'm saying.

    Yep, some of them work out, some of them don't. My point is the Twins historically have searched more for "value" than "sign the best guy." Nothing necessarily wrong with that if you develop your own pitching. 

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