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Potential free agent target: Jon Gray

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Gray could improve in lower altitude.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Colorado Rockies Michael Ciaglo-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals are seemingly stacked with young pitching for next year, but they quickly found out last year that there is no such thing as too much pitching depth. With pitchers still recovering from the shortened 2020 season, the Royals may want as many arms as they can to protect their young pitchers from having to work too many innings.

That may lead them to acquire another veteran starter. Dayton Moore recently said that the free agent market will be difficult for them to sign a starting pitcher. But Moore could be simply posturing to let the market know he is not willing to overpay, and the Royals could swoop in with an offer if he can find a pitcher willing to take the right offer.

One pitcher who could fit their needs is 30-year old right-hander Jon Gray. The Royals originally drafted Gray out of high school in Oklahoma, but he turned them down to become a standout at the University of Oklahoma and was the third-overall pick by the Rockies in the 2013 draft.

Gray was in the big leagues by 2015 and he received Rookie of the Year votes in 2016 with a solid 3.6 fWAR season. He missed some time in 2017 with a foot injury, but was still worth 3.3 fWAR in just 20 starts due to a 3.67 ERA and 3.18 FIP. He had issues in 2018 with the long ball and led the league in earned runs allowed, while posting a 5.12 ERA and earning a brief demotion to the minors.

The shortened 2020 season was a disaster for Gray as he had a 6.69 ERA in just eight starts with just 5.1 strikeouts-per-nine innings and missed a month with a right shoulder injury. He got off to a terrific start in the 2021 season with a 3.67 ERA in his first 20 starts. But he had a 7.22 ERA over his final nine starts and had a short stint on the Injured List with right forearm tightness.

Jon Gray

Year IP ERA FIP K/9 fWAR bWAR
Year IP ERA FIP K/9 fWAR bWAR
2015 40.2 5.53 3.63 8.85 0.9 0.2
2016 168.0 4.61 3.60 9.91 3.6 2.0
2017 110.1 3.67 3.18 9.14 3.3 3.2
2018 172.1 5.12 4.08 9.56 2.4 1.6
2019 150.0 3.84 4.06 9.00 2.8 4.0
2020 39.0 6.69 5.06 5.08 0.4 -0.3
2021 149.0 4.59 4.22 9.48 2.3 1.6
MLB Total 829.1 4.59 3.91 9.08 15.7 12.2

Gray throws in the mid-90s and has experienced a slight dip in velocity in the past two seasons. His slider is one of the best in the big leagues and he mixes in a curveball as well. He began throwing a change up with more regularity in 2020, and while it wasn’t successful that season, he showed some improvement with it this year.

With Rockies pitchers, you typically see much better numbers away from the high altitude of Coors Field. That hasn’t been the case for Gray, but there may be reasons to think he’ll be better once he leaves the Rocky Mountains. Hitters have lit him up the third time through the lineup, perhaps due to the fatigue of being in high altitude. Mike Petriello of MLB.com isn’t entirely clear what accounts for Gray’s issues, but he seems convinced that not pitching the third time against hitters at Coors Field could help.

None of this gets to the fact that in the first times through the lineup he’s been more good than great no matter where he’s pitched, and confoundingly better at Coors than on the road. But that simple matter of “being lit up the third time through at home” is responsible for nearly 20% of Gray’s career earned runs.

Gray reportedly rejected a three- or four-year offer worth $9-10 million per year from the Rockies earlier this spring and was not given a Qualifying Offer by the Rockies. The Detroit Tigers are already reported to have interest in him. Ben Clemens at Fangraphs projects him to get a three-year, $39 million deal, while fans put it higher at $45 million. That could put him squarely in line with what the Royals could afford as a rotation upgrade, as an anchor that can help ease the transition for young pitchers for the next few years.

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Should the Royals pursue Jon Gray?

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