BALTIMORE — With intensifying trade talks involving Manny Machado taking place off the field this week, the Yankees had another critically important issue to deal with Wednesday night at Camden Yards. This one also carries a significant impact on the team’s immediate future, and his name is Sonny Gray.
The Yankees still have plenty to sort out before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and Machado’s fate could be decided well before that, as the team reportedly has made a “strong offer” to the Orioles, according to FanCred.com. But wherever Machado winds up doesn’t necessarily resolve their Gray matter, unless the pitcher is somehow dealt in a late-July trade frenzy (don’t rule anything out this time of year).
The preference, of course, would be for Gray to shed his insecurities, rebuild his confidence and pitch like the front-line starter Brian Cashman thought he was getting a year ago when he sent three top-12 prospects to the A’s. On Wednesday night, Gray was able to perform a believable impression of one, pitching six scoreless innings and striking out eight in the Yankees’ 9-0 pasting of the Orioles.
“I felt good coming into it,” Gray said. “And I felt even better coming out of it.”
The Yankees certainly helped him relax, swatting three home runs — including Greg Bird’s first career slam, which put him up 5-0 by the third inning. With the pressure off, Gray cruised, and for once appeared to enjoy himself, smiling after a kick save of a Machado comebacker and also making a nifty sliding play to throw out Jonathan Schoop from his knees.
“It was a big outing for us,” Aaron Boone said.
Gray can ease a ton of team-wide anxiety just by doing his job, and Wednesday’s series finale against the pitiful Orioles was the ideal time for it. Not only was Gray coming off an ugly two-inning stint in Toronto, he was 0-3 in his last three starts with a 12.27 ERA, while opponents had raked him for a 1.099 OPS. Boone wouldn’t cop to such a thing, but it was worth suggesting that Gray’s spot in the rotation could soon be in jeopardy if the carnage continued.
But this goes well beyond Gray. The Yankees are 3 1/2 games behind the soaring Red Sox, and being non-competitive each time Gray takes the mound is not something they can afford if they hope to win the AL East. Also, the rotation as a whole has appeared wobbly of late, and Cashman is having trouble securing a high-quality reinforcement.
Since Gray’s last outing, that July 6 atrocity at Rogers Centre, the average start for a member of the Yankees’ rotation during those six games has looked like this: 4 2/3 innings, five hits, 2.3 walks, 4.5 strikeouts and 1.17 home runs — with a 5.40 ERA. The two best starters during that stretch? Domingo German and Luis Cessa, with the latter sent back to Triple-A Scranton to make room for Masahiro Tanaka’s return from the DL.
Sure, Wednesday night was crucial for Gray. It’s his career. But the Yankees have a lot riding on him as well. If Gray’s rebound sticks, then maybe the Yankees don’t have to be quite so desperate in their trade negotiations for a starter. We still think Cashman will grab one anyway — Toronto’s J.A. Happ is a reasonable get — and maybe before too long, Justus Sheffield will join the party.
Sheffield’s name came up again Wednesday when it was reported by MASN that he was not among the players mentioned in the Yankees’ offer for Machado. But as the team’s top pitching prospect, he wasn’t expected to be anyway, not for two-plus months of Machado. Sheffield is 4-5 with a 2.44 ERA in 15 starts and one relief appearance split between Scranton and Double-A Trenton. The 22-year-old lefthander, who was among the 2016 four-player haul from the Indians for Andrew Miller, also has a 7.33 K/BB ratio and 1.141 WHIP.
Cashman has plenty of other chips for a Machado rental, and more left over for another starting pitcher, too. No one is prepared to say Gray is fixed because we’ve all been down this road before. But if his situation is less murky, that’s one less thing the Yankees have to worry about as they strengthen their roster for a second-half charge at the first-place Red Sox. They’ll take that for now.