COMMENTARY | The Oakland Athletics lost their staff ace from a season ago after Bartolo Colon signed a two-year contract with the New York Mets in free agency.
As always, general manager Billy Beane and Co. have a young arm ready to step in near the top of the rotation and prove that he can be a cheaper option with higher upside. The 2014 version of that arm has to be phenom Sonny Gray, who was near dominant in his short stint with the A's in 2013.
Here are five reasons why Gray is set to have a huge campaign in 2014:
Armed with 96-mph fastball, slider, power curve and changeup, Gray has four pitches that he can rely on consistently. He does a tremendous job changing location and speeds on his pitches, which is a rare quality for such a young pitcher. You can teach heart and grit all you want, but in the end it's a necessity for a front-line starting pitcher to have the the talent to go up against the big boys and come out on top.
Gray's Game 2 performance in the ALDS against the Detroit Tigers was a prime example of this, which brings me to my next point.
The "It" Factor
Gray pitched eight scoreless innings in his initial postseason start, a 1-0 Athletics win over the Tigers in Game 2 of the ALDS this past October. Then-Tigers manager Jim Leyland had the following to say about the dazzling performance.
"This is postseason pitching. That's what you saw tonight at its best."
This performance was magnified by the fact that Oakland had lost Game 1 of the series at home and was forced to go up against former AL Cy Young and MVP Award Winner Justin Verlander, who had eliminated the A's from the playoffs on the very same stage the year before.
In that one moment in time, we all knew that Gray had something special in him. Not only did he possess the stuff to be a top-tier starting pitcher, but the rookie also had the moxie to take on the best in the game and come out on top.
One specific instance comes to mind. Early in Game 2, veteran Torii Hunter gave the rookie a look that seemed to come directly out of Ken Burns Baseball after the youngster threw one high and inside. It was in this game of cat and mouse that Gray stood up and proved he had the grit to be an ace. He responded by striking Hunter out on a 95-mph fastball. Outside of basic statistics, it is this type of mentality that has come to define the best the game has to offer.
Gray posted a 2.67 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 64 innings in his initial stint with the Athletics last season. He averaged over six innings per outing and finished with a stellar 1.11 WHIP. Those are truly ace statistics right there. He did this after joining the big-league club in July and pitching out of the bullpen in his first couple outings.
The youngster also showed a solid ability to bounce back from less-than-stellar outings. He gave up three earned runs or more two times last season but was able to follow up those two substandard outings by putting up 11.2 innings of scoreless baseball, a stretch that saw him give up eight hits while striking out 15 and walking just four. That's veteran stuff right there.
The A's didn't rush Gray along. Instead, he was able to compile experience at all minor league levels for a total of nearly 300 innings pitched. In the process, Gray pitched in a hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. He was still able to put up a 3.66 ERA with a 3.03 SO/BB rate. Anyone who has followed that league knows that those numbers are pretty darn good.
On another note, Gray will end up being one of those pitchers who put up better numbers at the highest level than in the minors. His quality stuff coupled with the pitcher-friendly ballpark that is O.co leads me to believe that Gray's 2013 numbers weren't a fluke.
Strong Lineup to Back Him Up
Oakland averaged six runs per inning in Gray's 10 starts last season. Those numbers are a bit skewed, as its offense tallied a total of 38 runs in three of those starts. Take those rare offensive performances out of the equation, and the A's offered Gray just over three runs of support per start in his other seven outings. He was still able to finish with a 5-3 record and Oakland won seven of his 10 regular season starts.
Don't expect that lack of run support to continue into 2014. Oakland's offense promises to be better this upcoming season, especially if Beane goes out there and acquires that big bat that we all know he is seeking.
Even if the general manager comes up empty, we can expect rebound performances from the likes of Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes after substandard 2013 seasons. This leads me to believe that Gray can win between 16 and 20 games in 2014.
Vincent Frank has been a follower of the Oakland Athletics since the late 1980s and has written about the team on multiple sites, including SB Nation and eDraft. He attends games on a consistent basis and talks about the team on his weekly radio show.
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