Sonny Gray’s abysmal season continued against the Baltimore Orioles yesterday. The Orioles are the worst team in baseball, and they traded every meaningful player at the trade deadline. Manny Machado and Jonathon Shoop are gone, and the Orioles are winless in their last 11 road games. Naturally, Gray allowed seven earned runs in less than three innings. To be fair, Gray pitched well before the disaster in Baltimore. Across three outings, Gray allowed only 2 earned runs. However, he did not face difficult competition, and only completed six innings in one of those starts.
It is now August 1st and Gray owns a 5.56 ERA (4.42 FIP) in 103.2. Only four pitchers in baseball own a higher ERA. Aaron Boone’s comments after the game suggested that in such a close division race, the Yankees may change their strategy. When asked about Gray’s future in the rotation, Boone said, “That’s something that we’ll talk about now in the hours ahead, days ahead about what our plans will be going forward.” Considering how much Boone has advocated for Gray this season, it seems like he is more concerned than he was several months ago. Boone has a responsibility to help his team win.
What is the strategy though if the Yankees take Gray out of the rotation? Should he skip a few starts and come back? Should he stay in the bullpen all year? Should the Yankees let him continue to iron things out in the rotation? Boone and Brian Cashman have a big decision to make, and it is not as simple as rotation versus bullpen. The Yankees need a plan after that decision is made. Here are some options that the Yankees should strongly consider:
OPTION 1: THE PHIL HUGHES TREATMENT
Once upon a time, Phil Hughes was the source of headaches for Yankee fans. After mixed results for several seasons, Hughes hit rock bottom in 2013. He posted a 5.19 ERA and 4.50 FIP. In August of that year, Joe Girardi started to place Hughes on a short leash by having him pitch shorter outings, with David Huff ready in relief. Hughes continued to struggle, and Huff eventually replaced him in the rotation. It could, therefore, make sense for Boone to give Gray the Hughs treatment. See how he performs in his next outing, and give him a chance to correct things. Keep him on a short leash, and if the game gets out of hand, have Lance Lynn ready to enter the game. This is a solution where Gray remains in the rotation but on a very short leash. Lynn is a safety net.
OPTION 2: REMOVE FROM THE ROTATION TEMPORARILY
Aaron Boone spoke after the game about how Gray needs to attack the strike zone. When he falls behind in counts, he tries to nibble and he pays a price for it. Perhaps the solution then is to move Gray to the bullpen for a month. Airing it out for one inning may help Gray focus on attacking hitters, while also pitching in low leverage spots. If he succeeds in this role and begins to regain confidence, the Yankees can bring him back to the rotation in September. Expanded rosters will give the Yankees more flexibility if Gray does not perform well. This mitigates the damage in August but still aims to get Gray back on track.
OPTION 3: REMOVE FROM THE ROTATION PERMANENTLY
It is unlikely that Gray starts a postseason game, so the Yankees might as well have him adjust to the bullpen now. The case to remove him for the rest of the season is that the Yankees cannot afford to be patient in a close division race. They can no longer tolerate these three-inning outings, and the acquisition of Lynn changes things. The Yankees have nothing to lose by replacing Gray with Lynn or even Luis Cessa. At this point, the Yankees need someone who can keep them in the game every single week.
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