Gray is one of the more fascinating names in the free agent market this offseason. The third overall pick in the 2013 draft by the Colorado Rockies out of the University of Oklahoma, Gray had a generally solid if unspectacular run as a mainstay in the Rockies rotation for the past six years, averaging 2.7 bWAR per 162 games, and in his five full seasons in the rotation ranging from 2.3 fWAR to 3.6 fWAR.
Gray is a curious case because he is the rare pitcher who has had relative success in Coors Field compared to other parks. For his career he actually has a lower ERA at Coors (4.54) than on the road (4.65), and his ability to perform so well at altitude is one of the reasons it has been suggested the Rockies should prioritize re-signing him. That was supposedly the plan when the Rockies chose not to deal Gray at the deadline, but they only offered him a 3 year deal at $35-40 million, leading Gray to choose to explore the free agent market, where he presumably expects to do better than that.
Gray’s success at home naturally leads to concerns that stats that take into account park effects, such as bWAR and fWAR, are overrating him, since Coors is treated as a very hitter friendly park, but doesn’t appear to affect Gray that strongly. I have seen it argued that part of Gray’s success at Coors is due to the fact that he does not rely on lots of spin and vertical movement — rather, he has a low spin four seamer that has a great deal of horizontal break, which is impacted less by the altitude.
Gray throws four pitches, but generally relies on his fastball/slider combo, which he threw over 85% of the time in 2021. He also has a changeup and a curveball he mixes in — he largely abandoned his changeup from 2017-19, but re-introduced it during his difficult 2020 season, and has used it slightly more often than the curve the past two seasons. His slider is his out pitch, and his ability to locate it down and glove side from the same release point where his four seamer, which is generally spotted up and arm side, results in swings and misses or weak contact off of it. The curve and change appear to be show-me pitches, with the change used mostly against lefties and the curve more against righthanded batters.
The Rangers have had success in recent years in targeting second-tier free agent pitchers, getting Mike Minor, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson in successive years on three year deals for around $30M and seeing them excel. It may be that the Rangers see in Gray someone who the team can work with to unlock another level of performance, as with that trio. Gray’s four seamer has evolved during his time with Colorado — earlier in his career it had more vertical movement and less horizontal movement, but that shifted after his first couple of years, which may have been an adjustment made to counter the altitude in Denver. It may be that the Rangers (and other teams) feel they can work with Gray to reverse those changes, making him more effective in non-Coors environments.
Like those Minor, Lynn and Gibson, Jonathan Gray will not cost a draft pick if the Rangers sign him, as he did not receive a qualifying offer — a somewhat surprising decision from the Rockies’ front office. Unlike those three pitchers, however, Gray is going to require more than a 3/$30M deal to lock him up, although Kiley McDaniel and Ben Clemens, in their respective free agent projections, each have him getting three years, $39 million, which is in line with the deal he rejected from Colorado. The Fangraphs crowdsource has him at 3 years, $45 million, which I tend to think is more in line with what he would get — or at least, what it would take for the Rangers to land him.
Three years feels like the sweet spot right now for the Rangers in pursuing this sort of player — it gets you into the window where you are hoping the Rangers will be competing, but isn’t such a long-term deal that you have a worrisome back end to contend with. I’ve got mixed feelings about Gray, but given the lack of draft pick compensation, the Rangers’ track recent track record with these sorts of deals, and the tremendous amount of money they have available to spend going forward, I wouldn’t have a problem with a 3 year, $45 million deal for Gray.
Jon Morosi says that the sense is Gray will sign before the expected lockout begins on December 1. It would be nice if we could head into the lockout with Gray in the fold.